Category Archives: Books

Obliquely, Hesitantly, Ambiguously

Over the years I have read a number of Buechner’s books, have enjoyed them, learned from them, and not agreed with everything the author said. My reaction to his latest,  A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory is no different.  Buechner (pronounced Beekner), is easy to read, and good at conveying ideas using unexpected examples or language.  He is gentle and encouraging.  However, to me, he often seems to be dancing around the point, but never really hitting it. He mentioned that in this book:

I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more doing in disclosing the best. I have seen with the eye of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness—even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus—as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like.
For the most part it is only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen.

Perhaps I would prefer his novels.

One passage in this book that I did like was in a section titled Depression, in which he referred to Psalm 131.  Although I have always understood the first verse to be more a statement of humility and faith rather than a result or expression of depression I appreciate his interpretation.

                       Psalm 131

O lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Buechner on the first verse:
       To be in a state of depression is like that.  It is to be unable to occupy yourself
with anything much except your….depression….You do not raise either your
heart or your eyes to the heights, because to do so only reminds you that you are yourself in the depths…
        “But I have calmed and quieted my soul,” he continues, and you can’t help thinking that, although maybe that’s better than nothing, it’s not much better.  Depression is itself a kind of calm, as in becalmed, and a kind of quiet, as in a quiet despair.
        Only then do you discover that he is speaking of something entirely different.  He says it twice to make sure everybody understands.  “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast,” he says, and then again “like a child that is quieted is my soul.”
And his description of that phrase I especially liked:
   A kind of blessed languor that comes with being filled and somehow also fulfilled; the sense that no dark time that has ever been and no dark time that will ever be can touch this true and only time; shalom—something like that is the calm and quiet he has found.



Communication and Communion

“Even to imagine such words brings us into a new relation of wonder with the realities, wonder that has very little to do with communication, to use Allen Tate’s distinction, and everything to do with communion.”

This delightful sentence, found in an essay, sent me looking for Allen Tate, and I was not disappointed.  A southern American poet and writer of the 20th century, he was Poet Laureate from 1943-1944.  One of his more famous poems is “Ode to the Confederate Dead,”  here read by the author:

I found more about him in an archived “First Things” essay.

Early on [Tate] certainly showed signs of having been habituated to a racist culture, but the mature Tate repented, and confessed that as original sin was to humanity so was slavery for the South.

And especially this which endeared him to me:

In one of his most important essays, Tate argued that it was the task of “the man of letters in the modern world” to hold up to his own age “an image of man” that can be judged by a standard, that can “distinguish the false from the true.” Here his literary concern is with the power of words and “the vitality of language” to communicate, but the questions of true religion continue to percolate beneath the surface, for by mid-century his literary criticism had become Catholic.

The man of letters in the modern world “must discriminate and defend the difference between mass communication, for the control of men, and the knowledge of man which literature offers us for human participation.” Yet such discrimination requires a standard which in a secularized, egalitarian culture is constantly being refused. This he said stems from an “internal crisis” in the West, a crisis in “a society that multiples means without end.” Tate argues that secularized societies proliferate communication, but every act of communication, indeed every action, is orchestrated along the lines of a “plotless drama of withdrawal.”

…..What he fears is dehumanization through mechanized power, through a social machinery that substitutes means for ends, and thus multiplies communication (he could have predicted the Internet) in such a way as to deprive people of communion. As Tate put it, “Communication that is not also communion is incomplete.” In his view, communication is a means, not an end. And the problem with a secularized society is that it refuses “the end of social man” which is, as he puts it “communion in time through love, which is beyond time.” (emphasis added).
I plan to read his book on Stonewall Jackson soon.
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Confused Minds

Reading from A Matter of Eternity: Selections from the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers:

The popular mind has grown so confused that it is no longer able to receive any statement of fact except as an expression of personal feeling.  (Mind of the Maker, 1941).

…it is hardly an exaggeration to say that many people contrive never once to think for themselves from the cradle to the grave.  They may go through the motions of thinking, but in fact they solve all problems either by the dictate of their emotions, or by accepting without enquiry the ruling of some outside authority.  Even quite well-informed people do this.  (Begin here:  A War-Time Essay. 1940).

“There’s nothing you can’t prove if your outlook is only sufficiently limited.” (spoken by Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body?,1923).

T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society

I’ve been reading The Idea of a Christian Society, a collection of three Eliot lectures from 1939.  It has made me more interested in engaging in our culture with a positive Christian attitude as opposed to merely disengaging from social activity and attitudes that are anti-Christian.  Culture exists on a continuum and how we engage it determines our individual contribution.   Eliot says “The fact that a problem will certainly take a long time to solve, and that it will demand the attention of many minds for several generations, is no justification for postponing the study.”


In using the term “Idea” of a Christian Society I do not mean primarily a concept derived from the study of any societies which we may choose to call Christian; I mean something that can only be found in an understanding of the end to which a Christian Society, to deserve the name, must be directed. I do not limit the application of the term to a perfected Christian Society on earth; and I do not comprehend in it societies merely because some profession of Christian faith, or some vestige of Christian practice, is retained. My concern with contemporary society, accordingly will not be primarily with specific defects, abuses or injustices but with the question, what—if any—is the “idea” of the society in which we live? to what end is it arranged?

…[I]f we are to accept [the Idea of a Christian Society], we must treat Christianity with a great deal more intellectual respect than is our wont: we must treat it as being for the individual a matter primarily of thought and not of feeling.  The consequences of such an attitude are too serious to be acceptable to everybody: for when the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.  For to see the Christian faith in this way–and to see it in this way is not necessarily to accept it, but only understand the real issues–is to see that the difference between the Idea of a Neutral Society (which is that of the society in which we live at present) and the Idea of a Pagan Society (such as the upholders of democracy abominate) is, in the long run, of minor importance.  I am not at this moment concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it appear desirable; but I am very much concerned with making clear its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living…[M]y primary interest is a change in our social attitude, such a change only as could bring about anything worthy to be called a Christian Society.

    The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable.

Doesn’t this sound like were we’ve arrived:

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us…It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.  It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian.  And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma–and he is in the majority–he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.  Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.  I am saying nothing at this point that has not been said before by others, but it is relevant.  I am not concerned with the problem of Christians as a persecuted minority.  When the Christian is treated as an enemy of the State, his course is very much harder, but it is simpler.  I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.

But it must be kept in mind that even in a Christian society as well organized as we can conceive possible in this world, the limit would be that our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonized; the temporal and spiritual would never be identified. There would always remain a dual allegiance, to the State and to the Church, to one’s countrymen and to one’s fellow-Christians everywhere, and the latter would always have the primacy. There would always be a tension; and this tension is essential to the idea of a Christian society, and is a distinguishing mark between a Christian and a pagan society.

This is something we need to listen to today:

The evils of nationalistic Christianity have, in the past, been mitigated by the relative weakness of national consciousness and the strength of Christian tradition. ….I think that the dangers to which a National Church is exposed, when the Universal Church is no more than a pious ideal, are so obvious that only to mention them is to command assent.

And this:

My point is that, while there is considerable measure of agreement that certain things are wrong, the question of how they should be put right is so extremely controversial, that any proposal is immediately countered by a dozen others; and in this context, attention would be concentrated on the imperfections of my proposals, and away from my main concern, the end to be attained. I confine myself therefore to the assertion, which I think few will dispute, that a great deal of the machinery of modern life is merely a sanction for un-Christian aims, that it is not only hostile to the conscious pursuit of the Christian life in the world by the few, but to the maintenance of any Christian society of the world. We must abandon the notion that the Christian should be content with freedom of cultus, and with suffering no worldly disabilities on account of his faith. However bigoted that announcement may sound, the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians. It would be a society in which the natural end of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and supernatural end-beatitude—for those who have the eyes to see it.

If you are interested, here is a related article.

The Continued Appeal of Jane Austen


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Dwight Longenecker writes about why he thinks Jane Austen continues to appeal to readers today.

Beneath Austen’s humor is humility. She satirizes the vain, silly, pompous, proud, and prejudiced, but she does so with good nature and an underlying kindness. She is often cutting, but never cruel. She laughs, but she doesn’t mock. She understands that humor and humility are rooted in humus—the earth. She knows that we are but dust and to dust we shall return—and that knowledge makes her kind.

Like all great writers, she has an innate understanding of human psychology, and she teaches that the more one knows, the more one can forgive.

….  If humility and humor are linked with humus, then it follows that the humble are down to earth. They are full of common sense. Her heroines (like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot) either see through the vanity, foolishness, and pride of their family and friends, or (like Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet) they grow up through their trials, see through the vanity, and learn the virtue of humility.

The humility Austen displays is not the false obsequiousness of the social climber or the false piety of the self-consciously religious. Instead true humility is linked with a clear vision of reality. Austen’s heroes are the men and women who see and accept themselves and others with clarity and charity. They accept that good manners and good morals dictate the way to behave towards others, and that such manners and morals must always be genuine and from the heart—not simply a display of outward artifice or the result of social accomplishment.

The continued appeal of Austen’s work is therefore not simply in the comic moments and the enjoyable sighs of a love story well told. Instead the audience is intrigued and inspired by the discovery of true simplicity and humility hidden within the complex, deceitful web of human pride and prejudice.


A Rational Explanation of the Universe

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.  It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.  It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.  And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it.  The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

                   Dorothy L. Sayers in Creed or Chaos, 1949       

On Picture Books

G. K. Chesterton wrote this poem in the front of a Caldecott picture book he presented to a young friend:

This is the sort of book we like
     (For you and I are very small),
With pictures stuck in anyhow,
     And hardly any words at all.
You will not understand a word
     Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble, you can see,
     And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
     Read all the pedant’s screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
     That can’t be told in colored pictures.

The first Caldecott Medal winner (1937). I’m guessing this is probably not the book Chesterton gave, as the illustrations are all black and white.

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