Thinking online…

I dislike inconsistency, especially in myself. It occurred to me that I have embraced two apparently inconsistent philosophical positions.

So I gave the matter some thought. Here’s the problem, and my synthesis.

The other day I linked to what I consider an outstanding article by historian Tom Holland. In it he explains how he gradually came to realize, though his research, that modern ideas of cultural relativism are false. It’s not true that all societies are pretty much the same. The Christian West espouses (though often fails to practice) the highest level of morality we know of, superior in every way to civilizations of the past that scholars love to praise. The Greeks and the Romans, for instance, from whom Enlightenment thinkers thought they derived their ideas, knew nothing of human equality and never contemplated ending slavery. It’s only the Christian West that has even striven for these things.

That’s one position I embrace.

But I also embrace what C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Abolition of Man, calls “the Tao.” The Tao (as Lewis used it here) is a universal set of moral precepts that appear to be inborn. They are reiterated in cultures all over the world, across racial divisions and epochs of time alike. “Don’t steal.” “Don’t murder.” “Keep your promises.” “Honor your parents.”

Does that contradict the Western exceptionalism I praise in Mr. Holland’s article? Continue reading Thinking online…

Steampunk Fantasy Set in Chattanooga

“Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1914. Tanna Cravens boards an airship bound for a colony in Fairyland… But a magical frontier ruled like the Old South isn’t the best home for a woman ahead of her time.”

Author Eric Slade noticed, like many others, that Britain seems to be the home for great, Earth-bound fantasy. If any wardrobe is going to open into a land of witches, winter, and satyrs, it will be in Hertfordshire or Kent, not in Hamilton County, Tennessee.

So Slade asked, “What if we had doorways, portals and fairies here? That was my initial inspiration for the world, something that was uniquely part of the American South.

In case you’re thinking “Fairyland” is an oddly quaint name, Slade may have taken it directly from the Fairyland area on Lookout Mountain, which borders Chattanooga on the southwest.

‘Black Knight in Red Square’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Black Knight in Red Square

In the second Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov police procedural by Stuart M. Kaminsky, Black Knight in Red Square, the shrewd Moscow police detective faces the challenge of terrorism. The Moscow Film Festival is going on, and someone just poisoned four hotel guests – two Russians and two foreigners.

Rostnikov’s superiors assign him and his team to investigate – but on the quiet. Keep it out of the news. He suspects strongly that they expect him to fail, and that they are fine with that. He’s expendable. But Rostnikov has his own agenda. He’s working out a way to emigrate to the West with his Jewish wife.

In the midst of a three-pronged investigation, one of Rostnikov’s assistants – the dangerous-looking fanatic Communist Karpo – will come face to face with an adversary who is his equal in shrewdness and single-minded devotion to a cause. The climax is highly dramatic and satisfying. We also get to see Rostnikove participate in a weight-lifting competition.

What can I say? It’s Kaminsky, so it’s a satisfying story, full of well-conceived and rounded characters. Also it’s set in summer. I can bear Moscow a little better in summer than in winter. (That comment should indicate how good the author is at evoking place and climate.)


Rotten Day (Part Two)

And, picking up on the bad news from the previous post, I got news yesterday of the death of one of my literary heroes, the novelist D. Keith Mano.

In a review of the novel for The New York Times, John Leonard wrote: “It is as if James Joyce, for his sins, had been forced to grow up in Queens; as if Sam Beckett had been mugged by Godot in a Flushing comfort station; as if Sid Caesar played the part of Moby-Dick in a Roman Polanski movie shot underwater in Long Island City; as if Martin Heidegger had gone into vaudeville and … never mind. Just boggle.”

Mano was amazing, a Christian author who’d never be allowed within a hundred yards of the Christian Booksellers Association. He wrote about sex for Christians, and about Christianity for Playboy. Although he opposed women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church, his novel Take Five features a sympathetic woman pastor.

His first novel, Bishop’s Progress, is probably my favorite of his works (I haven’t read them all). It’s the story of a liberal bishop, author of a popular book “reinterpreting Christianity for the modern man.” Confined in a hospital room with an ordinary working guy, he gradually realizes that what he preaches is of no use whatever to this genuine human being (a species with which he has little experience). It’s a great moment when he tells the fellow, “Don’t buy my book!”

Unlike my friend Steve, Mr. Mano had a hard death. Rest in peace.

(Thanks to Dave Lull for the information.)

Rotten Day (Part One)

Yesterday was an awful day.

It started out with the aftermath of several terrorist incidents, one as close to me as St. Cloud, Minnesota. I was troubled enough to abstain entirely from “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

Then I got personal bad news.

My friend Steve died Sunday night. I won’t give his full name because I don’t know his family’s wishes. But I will sing his glory nonetheless.

I only met Steve in the flesh two or three times. Once at a Scottish Fair in St. Paul, and once more (or twice, I’m not sure) at the L’Abri Center in Rochester, Minn. But we communicated much online. He was considerably younger than me – surely too young to die suddenly.

He was a musician and a connoisseur of music. He was a fan of fantasy literature. And he was a devout, evangelical Christian.

According to reports, he spent Sunday at his parents’ home, enjoying time with them at an antique engine show, and playing games in the evening. He went to bed, and the next morning his father found him lying there still dressed, a smile on his face.

Pretty much the way every one of us hopes we’ll die. But few are actually blessed to pass like that.

He was one of the foremost fans of my novels, boosting my books all the time. I feel as if I’ve lost one of the chief props of my literary career. And I’m the least of those mourning him.

Sometimes I have the feeling that the Lord is taking the best of us now, before dropping the hammer for good on this worm-eaten culture.

Rejoice in the presence of your Lord, Steve. I’ll see you in the morning.

Tolkien on Sex

Al Mohler writes about a 1941 letter Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael.

The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favorite subject,” Tolkien insisted. “He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.” Thus, Tolkien advised his young son, then 21, that the sexual fantasies of the 20th century were demonic lies, intended to ensnare human beings. Sex was a trap, Tolkien warned, because human beings are capable of almost infinite rationalization in terms of sexual motives. Romantic love is not sufficient as a justification for sex, Tolkien understood.

There is much more on Mohler’s site.

‘Death of a Dissident’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Death of a Dissident

The doznaniye or inquiry is based on the frequently stated assumption that “every person who commits a crime is punished justly, and not a single innocent person subjected to criminal proceedings is convicted.” This is repeated so frequently by judges, procurators, and police that almost everyone in Moscow is sure it cannot be true.

I felt a sudden longing for an old favorite author, so I thought I’d tackle Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porphiry Rostnikov books. I’ve generally avoided this series, because the one I did read was so grim. It’s not that the writing’s bad. It’s great (as witness the dry-humored passage above), and Kaminsky’s always perceptive and humane characters are as good here as anywhere else. I just don’t like the Soviet Union. The ugliness of the architecture, the scarcity and hunger, the deadening regulations, the fear of surveillance, even the cold of Moscow – it tends to wear me down. Even when the stories are good and the characters fascinating. As they are here.

Author Kaminsky decided to challenge himself to write a police procedural like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books, but set it in Moscow. The result is, I think, very successful (when you adjust for my prejudices). Porphiry Rostnikov, hero of Death of a Dissident, is a wounded World War II veteran (the time is the 1980s), disabled by an old leg injury, which doesn’t stop him working. In fact, he’s a weight lifter, contemplating entering an amateur competition. His subordinates are Karpo (a dedicated Marxist who looks like a vampire), and Tkatch (a young detective recently married).

When a prominent dissident is murdered in his apartment two days before his scheduled trial, a suspect is quickly identified and arrested. Word comes down from above that this will do for an investigation. No further inquiry will be required. However, a seemingly connected murder that follows shortly after has Rostnikov walking a dangerous line, trying to stop a serial killer while not upsetting the political cart. A man of lesser strategic intelligence would wreck his career and perhaps lose his freedom, but Rostnikov knows his business.

Good book, and people less prejudiced toward the Soviet Union than I will probably enjoy it even more than I did. There’s nothing pro-Soviet here; the anti-Communism is subtextual but ubiquitous. Nothing much in the way of objectionable material either.

Recommendations on the Enlightenment in America

Thomas Kidd is not bullish on the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment is an ideologically loaded term that implies that much of the western intellectual tradition before The Enlightenment was ‘dark.’ Much of that tradition was, of course, Christian. ‘The Enlightenment’ presupposes an arc of history toward secular democratic scientific liberalism.”

Today, he recommends five books on how this movement influenced Americans and the Founders. Here’s one of his recommendations:

Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (2005). From one of our finest scholars of Christianity and the Founding, I might also recommend Morrison’s volume on George Washington’s political philosophy. But here Morrison assesses the broad significance of Witherspoon, Princeton’s president and the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and his defense of the “public interest of religion.”

“Why I was wrong about Christianity”

One of the best things I’ve read in some time, from Tom Holland in NewStatesman:

The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

Read it all here.

The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Do we have religious freedom by the generosity of our government or by our natural rights as human beings? Is it more correct to say “all Men should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience” or “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of [religion], according to the dictates of Conscience”?

Justin Taylor writes about the birth of religious freedom in the American colonies. The quoted lines above are from George Mason and James Madison respectively. “Madison’s breakthrough was the insight that since the human mind and consciences only works properly when they are uncoerced, it is therefore inherently wrong to coerce them. One should not revoke or restrict religious liberty because it is based on human reason and conscience, which cannot be revoked or restricted.”

He draws this thought from the book The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America by Kevin Seamus Hasson.

A Completely New Super-Man

Writer and artist Gene Luen Yang is telling a new Superman story under D.C. Comics Rebirth banner. A Chinese boy from Shanghai, named Kong Kenan, is chosen by the right people to receive abilities equivalent to the Man of Steel. He begins as a bully but plays the hero at the right time to attract someone’s attention and change his life forever.

Blaine Grimes of Christ and Pop Culture thinks it works.

With New Super-Man, Yang sets up a narrative that directly confronts and subverts the traditional American superhero origin story. The dominant arc in comic book narratives—be it books or films—suggests that superheroes typically start from a position of basic goodness (or at least innocence) before they are imbued with fantastic powers or take up the mantle of public defender. . . .

But New Super-Man gives us a space, a not-so-fictional-universe in which damaged, wounded, and prideful outcasts are given both a new identity and a call to push back against the very darkness and injustice out of which they were redeemed.

‘Thank You For Smoking,’ by Christopher Buckley

Thank You For Smoking

Continuing my course of reading Christopher Buckley novels, I decided to try Thank You For Smoking, the novel that made him a star.

Compared with the two previous novels I read, written more recently, Thank You For Smoking is strong stuff. All his novels (at least the ones I’ve read) have concerned a man with some residual decency, doing a job he knows to be wrong. They’re novels of equivocation. TYFS is in the same line, but the basic decency of the hero, Nick Naylor, spokesman for the tobacco lobby, is more submerged than in the other books. Nick feels some guilt, but he genuinely enjoys the challenge of twisting facts to confound anti-smoking activists, who don’t look much better than he does in this story. They are portrayed as humorless neo-Puritans. Nick gets a kick out of tweaking their noses.

When the novel starts, Nick’s hold on his well-paying job is getting shaky. A new boss has taken over, and he’s keen to kick Nick out so he can replace him with his sexy blonde assistant. But then Nick appears on Oprah. It’s an ambush interview, and he finds himself face to face with a bald kid with cancer. But Nick has great instincts, and he manages to turn the tables, making himself – and the tobacco industry – look persecuted and heroic. That earns Nick the support of “The Colonel,” the venerable head of the firm. Nick’s future will involve being kidnapped, spending time in the hospital, having an affair with the aforementioned sexy blonde, and going to jail. It’s quite a ride, but a kind of moral closure is achieved in the end.

Thank You For Smoking is a bravura comic novel. There are few actual, quotable gags, but absurd juxtapositions and situations provide frequent laughs. I was troubled by a plot element that seemed to equate guns and alcohol with cigarettes, though I think that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.

But I found it all kind of rich for my blood. I’m going to take a break from Buckley for a while. Nevertheless I recommend Thank You For Smoking, with cautions for language, adult situations, and tasteless moments.

Pre-Lecture jitters

The busiest couple weeks of the year continue. But pressure is easing up in the library at last – I have adjudged my two new assistants qualified to range freely, within limits. Which gives me time to do other stuff. And other stuff need to be done.

I found out I’ll be doing my first seminary lecture (first of two) Thursday morning. That was somewhat short notice. But it’s not as if I haven’t been preparing. I just need to organize my piles of notes into a PowerPoint. And I’ve made a good start. Still, it’s a little daunting. If you like to pray for trivial concerns, you might remember me Thursday.

I think I figured out why they asked me to lecture on the historical roots of our conception of the pastorate. There’s been some concern in recent years, from certain quarters, that our seminary – while maintaining a high view of Scripture and Lutheran orthodoxy – has lost sight of its roots, the semi-romantic 19th Century dream of a repristinated New Testament congregation. They wanted somebody to explain our beginnings and the reasons why we do things in the (rather eccentric) ways we do them. As editor and translator for the Georg Sverdrup Society journal (devoted to the works of a founder of our tradition), I guess I qualify as a kind of an expert. There’s one guy who wrote a doctoral thesis on Sverdrup who certainly knows more than I do. But he’s retired. And another fellow who probably has a better global grasp on the historical factors than anybody alive. But he’s busy teaching other classes.

So I guess I qualify as a kind of an expert, in a very small niche. Funny how expertise snuck up on me. I never planned on it. It’s kind of like rummaging in your pockets and finding a candle snuffer in there. And you don’t remember buying one. But what do you know? There’s a candle right here that needs snuffing!

On the translating front, I hear that my next project will be a book on “the right of resistance,” the ancient Viking law that allowed the people of the land to rise up against, and kill, kings who got too big for their britches.

I think it will go over well among Deplorables.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture