Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Vicarious atonement

In the world today we are of course alarmed and fascinated by the huge numbers of Muslim men (and some women) who both commit and avoid the Islamic sin of suicide by blowing up at least one religious enemy along with them in an act of blessed martyrdom. But even more amazing, really, in its sheer irrationality, is that ancient act of vicarious atonement for which Christians can be so abjectly thankful. From Christopher Hitchens's book God Is Not Great:


Previous sacrifices of humans, such as the Aztec and other ceremonies from which we recoil, were common in the ancient world and took the form of propitiatory murder. An offering of a virgin or an infant or a prisoner was assumed to appease the gods: once again, not a very good advertisement for the moral properties of religion. "Martyrdom," or a deliberate sacrifice of oneself, can be viewed in a slightly different light, though when practiced by the Hindus in the form of suttee, or the strongly suggested "suicide" of widows, it was put down by the British in India for imperial as much as for Christian reasons. Those "martyrs" who wish to kill others as well as themselves, in an act of religious exaltation, are viewed more differently still: Islam is ostensibly opposed to suicide per se but cannot seem to decide whether to condemn or recommend the act of such a bold shahid.
      However, the idea of a vicarious atonement, of the sort that so much troubled even C. S. Lewis, is a further refinement of the ancient superstition. Once again we have a father demonstrating his love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life. [pp. 208-209]

Monday, July 30, 2007


My alter ego Harry Caldecot, in Kingsley Amis's comic novel The Folks That Live on the Hill, has a brother Freddie, a poet, on whose behalf Harry has concocted a writing regimen to gain Freddie some respite from his oppressive wife Désirée. Freddie and Désirée have come to dinner with Harry and Clare, their sister, who lives with Harry:
He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted.
      "It's a little bizarre, isn't it?" she said, smiling with the ends of her mouth close together. "He writes. He mustn't talk. I mustn't ask. He can ask me for nothing. I can tell you nothing. It's like a solemn game. Rather outré. Imagine trying to explain it to a sympathetic friend. What does Clare say?"
      "You mean it's a bloody scream," said Harry to himself. "And so it is. But it's going on as long as it gives that poor little bugger any escape from you." Aloud, he said jolly thrillingly, and it was a solid blessing that Désirée was ultimately to be overawed and overwhelmed with bullshit—not even all that ultimately, perhaps—"No more words. We've said what we've said. Enough."
      "Is there some possible way I could get a drink" asked Freddie.
      "Clare need any help?" asked Désirée.
      "All under control," said Harry...
      ...Then Freddie mentioned oysters, and Désirée looked up, and Harry was aware of the faintest of premonitory flutters, like the string tremolo heralding the onset of the storm in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.
      "Nothing to compare with a dozen fat natives with plenty of lemon-juice," said Freddie. "And don't give me any of your tabasco or chili vinegar," he warned Clare. "Ruin the whole thing, you know."
      "Of course, there's a lot of folk-lore about oysters going back centuries, you know," said Désirée.
      "They were very cheap till quite recently," said Harry. "Dr. Johnson's cat—"
      "People used to think they put lead in your pencil," said Désirée.
      Freddie blinked and looked quite disapproving. "What? Used to think they what?"
      "Can I help anyone to any more?" asked Clare.
      "Used to think?" said Freddie. "I don't know about used to think. I was chatting to a fellow driving my minicab the other day, I told you, didn't I, darling, and I happened to mention I'd had a dozen of the large for lunch at Law's a while back, and he said, hooh, he said, bet the wife went through it that night. Eh? Bet the wife went through it. Urhh!"
      "All folk-lore. Because of what they look like. I mean, I ask you, what do they look like for God's sake?" When nobody answered her, Désirée went on, "Not that our young Freddie needs anything in the way of oysters or bananas or hard-boiled eggs or strychnine or Brazil nuts—oh yes, I've made quite a study of this fascinating little backwater. No, as I was saying to Harry t'other day in the pub—you were off getting drinks, darling—since his recent operation"—she mouthed this in the way she had—"young Freddie's become a positive menace. Not just a matter of the wife going through it this or that night, but—"
      "My darling, I really don't think Harry and, and, and, and, and Clare want to, want to hear about this. Really and truly I don't."
      "Oh, don't be so stuffy, Freddie, why should we hide these things away at our time of life, and it's not as if we're on the air, it's all, come on, we're in the family circle now, for God's sake, aren't we? Yes, well, okay." Désirée made concessive movements with her head and hands. "A joke's a joke. Old lover-boy here and me, we're obviously not in our first youth. Things ain't what they used to be—what's the matter, Harry? All right? Yes, but a little bit of do you know what he calls it, a little bit of num-num—num on a Sunday morning, then a cup of tea and a glance through the Observer, and then perhaps, depending on how we feel...That's actually our best time, Sunday morning. You can imagine."
      "Well, I expect I could if I were to put my mind to it," said Harry. [pp. 83-86]

Sunday, July 29, 2007

To the believers go the spoils

"As far as I am aware," writes Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great,
there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran. This returns us to the retort delivered, in the very early days of the Republic, to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two slaveholders had called on the ambassador of Tripoli in London to ask him by what right he and his fellow Barbary potentates presumed to capture and sell American crews and passengers from ships using the Strait of Gibralter. (It is now estimated that between 1530 and 1780 more than one and a quarter million Europeans were carried off in this way.) As Jefferson reported to Congress:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them whenever they could be found and to make slaves of all they could take prisoners.
      Ambassador Abdrahaman went on to mention the requisite price of ransom, the price of protection from kidnapping, and last but not least his own personal commission in these proceedings. (Religion once again betrays its man-made conveniences.) As it happens, he was quite right in what he said about the Koran. The eighth sura, revealed at Medina, deals at some length with the justified spoils of war and dwells continually on the further postmortem "torments of fire" that await those who are defeated by the believers. It was this very sura that was to be used only two centuries later by Saddam Hussein to justify his mass murder and dispossession of the people of Kurdistan. [p. 181]

"Spoils of War"

If I were going to post some comments on this, I thought I'd better have read the eighth sura myself, so I got out my copy of Thomas Cleary's English translation of The Qur'an and three times read the sura titled "Spoils of War." It opens as I think all of the suras do with the invocation, "In the name of God, the Benevolent, the Merciful." Then:
1. They ask you about the spoils of war.
      Say, "The spoils are for God and the messenger
            [i.e., the Prophet Muhammad].
      So be conscious of God,
      and reconcile dissension among you.
      And obey God and God's messenger,
      if you are believers."...
12. Then your Lord inspired the angels,
      "I am with you, so steady those who believe.
      I will cast fear into the hearts
      of those who scoff,
      so strike above their necks,
      and strike off their fingertips."
13. That is because they contended
      with God and the messenger of God;
      and for anyone who contends
      with God and the messenger of God,
      God is severe in punishment:
14. "There you are, so taste it—
      for the atheists there's the torment of the fire.
15. Oh believers, when you meet
      the atheists on the march,
      never turn your backs to them.
16. Whoever turns his back on that day,
      except when turning to fight
      or withdrawing to regroup
      has brought down wrath from God;
      and his abode is hell,
      and what a miserable destination!...
38. Say to those who scoff,
      "If you desist, what is past
      will be forgiven you;
      but if you resume,
      the example of the ancients
      has already occurred."...
41. And know that a fifth
      of anything you gain as spoils
      is for God and his messenger,
      and for relatives, and orphans,
      and the poor, and the traveler,
      if you do believe in God
      and what We sent down to Our servant
      on the day of distinction,
      the day of the meeting of the two armies;
      for God has power over everything...
57. So if you prevail over them in war,
      then disperse their followers with them,
      that they may take a lesson.
58. And if you really fear
      treachery from a people,
      default on them equally;
      for God does not like the treacherous.
65. O Prophet, rouse the believers to battle:
      if there are twenty of you
      who persevere patiently,
      they will defeat two hundred;
      and if there are a hundred of you,
      they will overcome a thousand
      of those who scoff,
      because these are the people
      who do not understand....
70. O Prophet, say to the captives in your hands, "If
      God recognizes good in your hearts,
      God will give you better than what was taken
      from you, and God will forgive you.
      And God is very forgiving, most merciful."
71. But if they intend to betray you,
      they have already betrayed God;
      so God has given power over them.
      And God is all-knowing, most wise....[pp. 84-88]
      What a fluttering thrill this must give the believer. To be led by an all-powerful (but benevolent and merciful) father protector. And to be assured of victory on the battlefield. But what a shudder for the freethinker to read even the invocation:
In the name of God, the Benevolent (but not to me!), the Merciful (but not to me!)
I am, against these warriors of God, destined to become spoils, a slave. Or have my head lopped off, or my fingertips, or both!
      "Of course," I'm thinking, the belief that this twaddle came from God is a fantasy. It's just men, with no more human resources than nonbelievers have, whipping themselves up into the delusion that they are not only irresistible and indestructible, but also morally superior into the bargain. But people so whipped up are not to be messed with lightly. Our own cops are often sorely challenged to take down a crack-head.

Kill Alle

Less than an hour after preparing the material above for posting, I was startled out of impending sleep while listening to Kingsley Amis's The Folks That Live on the Hill:
While [Fiona, Harry's stepdaughter by a previous marriage] waited for the minicab she sang a little—a hundred years ago she and her parents too had thought she might make a singer, which was a laugh if ever there was one.
Und ein Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit Fünfzig Kanonen
Wird leigen am Kai...
She had known some German too at the same sort of stage, which was another laugh, even bigger when you thought about it, but she had long forgotten what it was exactly that the ship with eight sails and fifty guns got up to after reaching the quay, though she did remember that at the end the crew asked the girl Jenny who was supposed to be singing the song how many of the people in the town she wanted killed and, speaking not singing the word, she answered, "Alle!" [pp. 128-129]
      For I had heard not the German word "alle" but the Arabic word "Allah," as though the girl Jenny were voicing the secret desire, Death to Allah! Be done with Islam once and for all! My creative hearing struck me as uncannily appropriate in the context of Barbary pirates and sailing ships with cannon. The magical thinking part of myself of course wanted this to be a divine signal of some sort, hopefully telling me:
Right on, Islam is a crock of thuggery and brutishness, too many of its Arab adherents caught up in a death cult stemming from some no doubt interesting psychological complex, if not, as Thomas L. Friedman and others have suggested, from their ambivalently feeling at the same time both superior in their status with God and inferior on social, cultural, and scientific scales.
But such a reaction on my part could be but the mirror image of the predictable response of "good Muslims" (following another of their seeming moral imperatives) to condemn Hitchens for not really knowing anything about Islam, by which they really only mean that he doesn't know it sympathetically and apologetically—the way they do—so how dare him tell them about Islam. He, they jeer, emphasizes the wrong things, they emphasize the right things (the same way that Christians play down Leviticus and play up God's loving mankind so much that He gave his only begotten Son, etc.).
      So I'll not claim that hearing "Allah" was any sort of divine inspiration or sign, but will only assume that it was an unconscious mental act helping me deal with cognitive dissonance, as if I'd decided at the last minute to buy a Ford instead of a Chevy and proceeded to see a lot of bad Chevies on the road, so wasn't I lucky I switched to a Ford.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Behold! Jingle Jangle

Today, even before the author got to see and hold the first copy of his book, his editor in Chapel Hill had that pleasure [click photo to enlarge it]:

Click the photo below to see what readers have said about Jingle Jangle.

Published by Broken Bench Press, the book is on sale on the web. Broken Bench Press was founded to bring Jingle Jangle to the reading public. The name was chosen because the bench (our criminal justice system) is indeed broken. If you purchase a copy we are grateful to you. If you read and enjoy it, please tell your friends about it. Especially if you agree with its basic premises. We'll all benefit from repairing our criminal justice system.

At my time of life

The character Harry Caldecot in Kingsley Amis's comic novel The People That Live on the Hill is the one that, for "demographic reasons," I suppose I have to identify with the most. In this passage he visits a friend:
"Cheers, darling," said Maureen.
      "It's lovely to see you."
      "Listen, why didn't you telephone before you came? I might not have been here. I'm quite often not at this time, or I might have been having Bernie round."
      "Oh, Bernie, of course."
      "You know Bernie," she said impatiently. She smoked with her cigarette pointed at him and her elbow against her chest, like a beauty of a bygone era.
      "No, but I'm sure I can imagine him."
      "He's an actor who happens to play the guitar rather well."
      "Yes, I thought I could imagine him."
      "Anyway, why didn't you telephone, because I might easily have been having him round."
      "Well, you weren't, were you, and I don't know, I suppose I didn't think, and what of it, it's only a step from Shepherd's Hill Road."
      "You weren't by any chance hoping I'd be out or otherwise engaged?"
      Harry moved away from the chair he had taken and went and sat next to her on the Leonard-period sofa [Leonard had been her husband], and she instinctively shifted up to make room for him. "Would that be like me, do you think, as you've known me?"
      "No, you sod. No, of course it wouldn't be like you. That's true enough."
      "There you are, then."
      "Made it more of a bit of excitement, though, perhaps, not knowing?"
      "Well, now you mention it, I suppose there might be a bit of that in it, I really don't know."
      "Yeah." She did a great scowling caricature of a wink. "So the old bad penny's turned up again, eh?"
      "Bad pennies are supposed to be things people don't like to see turning up."
      "I beg your pardon, Professor."
      "No, I just meant I hoped you weren't saying you were sorry I'd come."
      "Do me a favour."
      He leaned forward and picked up in his fingers two deliquescent lumps of ice from the bowl. They seemed to become measurably smaller as soon as they hit the surface of his gin and tonic, but it was the general idea that counted. Settling back again, he snuggled a little closer to Maureen on the sofa. "This is jolly cosy," he said.
      When they were in their second drink she went and lowered the venetian blind over the window that looked out on the front of the house, working the twiddler at the side to turn the slats vertical or someway in that direction...
      ..."If you really want to be an angel there's some more ice in the kitchen. No rush."
      When he brought the ice, everything was as it had been when he arrived except that she was playing an Ella Fitzgerald record on her small distortion-rich machine (c. 1968) and joining in with some of the words...
      ..."Come on, just a small one before you go. Or not?"
      "Or not? Whence the sudden urgency? And what the importance? People say or not these days as if the sands had started running out. Yes, thanks, I'd love one...This is jolly nice," he said parking himself on the sofa and snuggling up to Maureen again. "Getting away from everything. Really nice." In fact it struck him as so nice that at one stage there seemed a fair chance that she would have had to let the blind down again, but he remembered how late it was getting and the moment passed. Not long after that he said he would walk back to Fitzherbert Avenue and pick up a cab on its way down to Buckland Village. She went along to the front door with him.
      "It's been lovely," he said, and kissed her affectionately. "See you soon."
      "Well, that's up to you, isn't it, a bit?"
      "What? How do you mean?"
      "Do you realize how long it's been since the last time?"
      "No? Why, has it been a specially long time?"
      "Not really. Well, I was going to ask you." Her face and voice went into a sort of Dickensian-cockney travesty. "I mean it wouldn't be, now would it, that you've found yourself some other little fancy piece of work in Muswell Hill or likewise, what is more appealing than your poor little Maureen what you have known these many years."
      "What? Good God, no." He was genuinely astonished, if only because she knew so well how lazy he was. "What a, what a ridiculous bloody idea. At my time of life?...." [pp. 76-79]
Ah, that time of life. I'm coming to know it well.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A fundamentalist assumption examined

As I've already mentioned, one of my special pleasures in reading Christopher Hitchens's latest book is his mentions of authors and issues that I'm already familiar with. Reading God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything tends to confirm some of my own understandings about religion:
Many years after C. S. Lewis had gone to his reward, a very serious young man named Barton Ehrman began to examine his own fundamentalist assumptions. He had attended the two most eminent Christian fundamentalist academies in the United States1, and was considered by the faithful to be among their champions. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew (he is now holder of a chair in religious studies [in Chapel Hill]), he eventually could not quite reconcile his faith with his scholarship. He was astonished to find that some of the best-known Jesus stories were scribbled into the canon long after the fact, and that this was true of perhaps the best-known of them all.
      This story is the celebrated one about the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11). Who has not heard or read of how the Jewish Pharisees, skilled in casuistry, dragged this poor woman before Jesus and demanded to know if he agreed with the Mosaic punishment of stoning her to death? If he did not, he violated the law. If he did, he made nonsense of his own preachings. One easily pictures the squalid zeal with which they pounced upon the woman. And the calm reply...—"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her"—has entered our literature and our consciousness.
      ...Long before I read Ehrman2, I had some questions of my own. If the New Testament is supposed to vindicate Moses, why are the gruesome laws of the Pentateuch to be undermined? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the killing of witches may seem brutish and stupid, but if only non-sinners have the right to punish, then how could an imperfect society ever determine how to prosecute offenders? We should all be hypocrites. And what authority did Jesus have to "forgive"? Presumably, at least one wife or husband somewhere in the city felt cheated and outraged. Is Christianity, then, sheer sexual permissiveness? If so, it has been gravely misunderstood ever since...Furthermore, the story says that after the Pharisees and the crowd had melted away (presumably from embarrassment), nobody was left except Jesus and the woman. In that case, who is the narrator of what he said to her? For all that, I thought it a fine enough story.
      Professor Ehrman goes further. He asks some more obvious questions. If the woman was "taken in adultery," which means in flagrante delicto, then where is her male partner? Mosaic law, adumbrated in Leviticus, makes it clear that both must undergo the stoning. I suddenly realized that the core of the story's charm is that of the shivering lonely girl, hissed at and dragged away by a crowd of sex-starved fanatics, and finally encountering a friendly face....
      Overarching all this is the shocking fact that, as Ehrman concedes:
The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable; this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.
      I have again [after selecting C. S. Lewis] selected my source on the basis of "evidence against interest"; in other words from someone whose original scholarly and intellectual journey was not at all intended to challenge holy writ. The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or "inspiration" has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no "revelation" can be derived from that quarter. So, then, let the advocates and partisans of religion rely on faith alone, and let them be brave enough to admit that this is what they are doing.
  1. The Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College.
  2. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, from which I quoted in my post of April 30.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Today's Word*

serendipity \ser-uhn-DIP-uh-tee\, noun:
The faculty or phenomenon of making fortunate accidental discoveries.

"Still, I was more subject to serendipity than I yet knew. Soon risk, chance, and a letter from Sir Alun Reese-Jones, the Master of Trinity, my college at Cambridge, were to set my life on an adventurous course."
            – David Freeman, One of Us

"Yet even as I planned a rough route, leaving plenty of room for serendipity, I was uncomfortably aware that journeys have a way of creating their own momentum."
            – Lesley Hazleton, Driving to Detroit

"There again, perhaps because of serendipity, or an especially conscientious team of doctors, it can also happen that the crucial clues are noticed and recorded for posterity."
            – Edward Hooper, The River

The word serendipity was formed by English author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) from Serendip (also Serendib), an old name for Sri Lanka, in reference to a Persian tale, "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "discovered, quite unexpectedly, great and wonderful good in the most unlikely of situations, places and people."
Long a devotee of serendipity myself, I admit that I have taken my own pleasure in numerous serendipities in my life. With a colder eye now, though, I observe that we probably encounter just as many things in life (if not more) that could be unfortunate accidental discoveries. But so far as I know we don't have a word for that. We have the word serendipity because it serves us better and makes us happy to focus on and accentuate the positive. Rather, I suppose, like believing in a benevolent God and various other varieties of favorable magic. We believe in what we want or need to believe in.
* http://www.dictionary.com/wordoftheday/

Nature and "the new world religion"

More reflections after visiting The Clark Institute

As I was publishing Tuesday's post, I felt vaguely uncomfortable that the photographs I was including were not of Monet's (or any other human being's) art, but of "Nature's art." I remembered that when I looked out a window in one of the galleries and spied the pond, I felt more drawn to it than to any of the man-made objects inside. And I supposed that individuals all over the world, of whatever religion (or irreligion) probably respond more reliably to the beauty of a lily pond than they do to any man-made work of art. Respond to Nature, that is.

But do they? Like everything else, Nature leaves it to each of us how to interpret it, how to respond. A friend of mine seems to interpret Nature as obvious proof positive of the existence and benevolence of God (notwithstanding all of the suffering and destruction embodied in Nature's food chain, which she seems to forgive as a mysterious manifestation of the overarching understanding and provision of The Creator, etc.). Others of her faith, equally religious in their own way, interpret Nature as something grand to blow up (if it's in the enemy's territory or has situated within it the appropriate people to be blown up along with the site).

Christians too—and members of all other faiths of course—can respond as my friend does. But certain Christian businessmen (who may be fine Christians on Sunday morning) are more like those other members of my friend's faith the rest of the week...out there slowly blowing up Nature and making people sick or dead by subduing and polluting the planet's hills and streams and water tables and oceans with their smokestack gases and drainpipe effluents.

Some atheists (perhaps scientists in particular) get a thrill from observing and contemplating the grandeur of Nature itself—they may even feel that they're in the presence of some sort of transcendence. Other scientists are more workaday—blinkered technocrats working for corporations whose short-term financial interests they serve for pay. For them there's nothing transcendent about Nature at all, it's just a commodity.

What I'm thinking now, alas, is that there's probably nothing whatsoever that evokes the same response in everyone—not even the concept God. Maybe especially not the concept of God, being man-made as it is. A world religion seems to be utterly impossible. It's the Tower of Babel all over, or continuously. Suppose for a moment that God exists and that God could (and on a particular occasion would) speak to every individual on the planet. Do you think that everyone would hear Her? Or do you think that everyone who did hear Her would recognize that it was God? The Episcopal pastor in Peggy Payne's 1988 novel Revelation wasn't sure that that voice he heard in his backyard was God's or not, and his congregation was quite sure it wasn't.

Nor does a world irreligion (a sort of Sam Harris utopia) seem possible. Science (as a rational, intellectual inquiry) reports its findings continually and is, theoretically, available to everyone. But even if literally everyone did hear the reports, many wouldn't recognize what they were reporting, wouldn't understand them, would find them boring, or, more likely, would reject them out of hand and insist on...Creationism or some other improbable fantasy. They'd continue to imagine in their magical way that there's a Spiritual Something out there performing miracles despite—and in defiance of—the Laws of Nature.

Maybe this egalitarian response is as good a proof as we can get that God does exist, for maybe God is like James Joyce, who said that he took credit for all the interpretations by every Ulysses scholar in the world, whether or not any of them had occurred to him personally.*

Or maybe not. Maybe the egalitarian response is as good a proof as we can get that God doesn't exist. That it's every man and woman for himerself.

* According to Bernard Holland in his July 24 article in The New York Times, "Debussy's Ghost Is Playing, So What Can a Critic Say?"

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The new world religion

On the flight with Bernard Walsh and his father to Hawaii (in David Lodge's novel Paradise News) is Rupert Sheldrake, an anthropologist in the field of tourism, who has overheard the Walshes' conversation and approaches Bernard:
"He said you were a theologian."
      "Well, I teach in a theological college."
      "You're not a believer?"
      "Ideal," said Sheldrake. "I'm interested in religion myself, obliquely. The thesis of my book is that sightseeing is a substitute for religious ritual. The sightseeing tour as secular pilgrimage. Accumulation of grace by visiting the shrines of high culture. Souvenirs as relics. Guidebooks as devotional aids. You get the picture."
      "Very interesting," said Bernard. "So this is a sort of busman's holiday?" He indicated the Travelwise label on Sheldrake's stainless steel attaché case.
      "Good Lord, no," said Sheldrake with a mirthless smile. "I never go on holiday. That's why I moved into this field in the first place. I always hated holidays, even as a kid. Such a waste of time, sitting on the beach, making sandpies, when you could be at home doing some interesting hobby. Then, when I got engaged, we were both students at the time, my fiancée insisted on dragging me off to Europe to see the sights: Paris, Venice, Florence, the usual things. Bored the pants off me, till one day, sitting on a lump of rock beside the Parthenon, watching the tourists milling about, clicking their cameras, talking to each other in umpteen different languages, it suddenly struck me: tourism is the new world religion. Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists—the one thing they have in common is they all believe in the importance of seeing the Parthenon. Or the Sistine Chapel, or the Eiffel Tower. I decided to make it my PhD subject. Never looked back...." [p. 61]

After visiting the exhibit of "The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings" at The Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts on Friday, I'd add the works of Claude Monet (1840-1926) to "the sights" that (in some sense) unite people in the visiting. A lily pond behind The Clark:

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Six Mountains

We're back today from four days in Vermont, where we visited our son at the Killington Music Festival and identified the "Six Mountains" referred to in the name of the inn we stayed in. (If you click on the photo, you should be able to make out their names in the enlargement of the ski trail billboard behind the Ramshead performance place.)

Yesterday we took a gondola up to Killington Peak. Looking westward toward Rutland:

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"A hoot sounded in the street..."

On June 10 I reported having read a review of a new biography of Kingsley Amis and subsequently adding his name to my list of authors to read. I've been continually in a state of delight as I read his 1990 novel The People That Live on the Hill. (And it's not even one of the especially funny novels mentioned in the review.) Here's an excerpt:
In the post office [Harry Caldecote] picked up more or less at random a small packet of airmail envelopes and made for the counter. Here he found he was standing next to a kind of elderly small boy dressed like a conscript in some half-starved oriental army. When an unsmiling glance of recognition had come his way he identified this person as the dreaded Popsy, girl-fiend of Bunty, his niece by marriage. She seemed to be daring him to speak.
      "Hallo, Popsy, how are you, haven't seen you for a long time. How's old Bunty?"
      This was obviously so devoid of insight and style as not to be worth answering. She was buying some packets of coloured sticky labels of the sort that might be used (it occurred to him later) to distinguish one person's belongings from another's. Harry watched her intently while she had her purchase put in a bag, paid for it and was given change, not because he wanted to in the least but through having somehow entered a state of light hypnosis. It lasted until she had moved to near the door and he had followed her.
      "Did you say something to me about Bunty?"
      "Yes." He wanted to say something else to her now, on the subject of her going and fucking herself, but stuck to his original point. "I wondered how she was."
      "Oh. Well I'm afraid I'm not really up to date on how Bunty is at the moment. I haven't spoken to her for over a week it must be. She was all right then."
      "That flat she's in, I'm not living there any more, I'm in South Kensington now." To save him from looking a bit of a twit by objecting that actually as anybody could see she was in Shepherd's Hill now, Popsy added, "I'm just over here to see some of my stuff being picked up."
      "You're moving out for good, then," he said without much sense of breaking new ground.
      "Life had simply become impossible."
      "I don't know whether you think you have any influence over her, over Bunty."
      "Oh well, perhaps I do, I mean perhaps I have."
      "After all you got her into that flat, didn't you?"
      "I thought I'd made it clear I merely happened to have heard it was vacant at the right time."
      "She needs someone to tell her other people don't belong to her as if they were her private property, they have their own lives to lead."
      "I don't think I've ever met anybody in my life who needs someone to tell her that less than Bunty does."
      "In any case it isn't just Bunty. That Piers [Harry's 35-year-old son, who lives in the same flat] needs to pull himself together as well, in a big way."
      "I couldn't agree more, I've often tried to put the point to him myself."
      "Young lord and master. Do you know what he does for a living?"
      "Do tell me, I've given up trying to find out."
      "I don't know, I just thought you ought to, in your position."
      "Well there are an awful lot of things I ought to know which I don't suppose—"
      "There certainly are." Popsy's bottom teeth were visible between her thin lips. Her eyes moved as if in rapid thought. "Here's another. There was a fellow round the other day making inquiries about that Piers."
      "What sort of man?"
      "I don't know, I wasn't there." She gave a grim laugh out of a thriller. "The sort of man who makes inquiries, I shouldn't wonder."
      "What sort of inquiries?"
      "As I said, I wasn't there. But evidently they boded no good at all to Master bloody Piers."
      Harry glared back. "Well, Miss Popsy-Poops, all I can say is that if for your own good reasons you want to make me feel fed up or concerned or frightened about Piers, who's been in more kinds of trouble than I guess you have so far, then you'll have to do a bloody sight better than that. Your trouble is you've plenty of ill-will but not the imagination or the practical knowledge or I dare say nasty enough associates to carry it through. Good afternoon to you."
      At that point the two moved apart...
      She had managed to convey greater hostility...than anything in her words. In addition she had made him feel he was responsible for everything she had alluded to, and for much else besides, things he could never even have known about, but he was used to getting such teleaesthetic messages even from the sort of women that were supposed to like men. Something in his manner had told her, quite likely without her knowledge, that he was feeling pleased with life, and she had instinctively moved in to see about that. Well, he was not going to let himself be got down by a bloody dyke at his time of life....
      [One of the two Asian brothers who ran the shop] handed him a small leaflet of stiff pink paper. Shepherd Hill Neighbours Help, it said.
      "You've got a dog, haven't you, Mr Caldecote? This lot'll exercise it for you. Also come to visit you if you feel lonely....Mind you, I doubt whether any of those services are really intended for you. I mean you're not from a black or ethnic minority or gay or disabled like it says, are you?"
      "No. No."
      "No. And you're not regardless of age, creed or religion either, are you?"
      "I should say not."
      "You know what I think, I think that lady you were talking to just now, she's more the kind of person these people are anxious to involve, as they call it. Or am I completely wrong?"
      "Your powers of observation are extraordinary."
      "I'm just interested in human nature, Mr Caldecote." A hoot sounded in the street.... [p. 71-74]
And from this reader, too, a hoot—of laughter. I hope that my excerpt provided enough for you to appreciate the wickedly observant satire of the "novelist of manners" that Kingsley Amis seems to have been (he died in 1995). If not enough for that, then enough, I hope, to encourage you to pick up this novel and join me in reading it from the beginning for its mordant humor, its marvelous precision of observation of people's foiblous ways*....
* Right, I made "foiblous" up, but it should be in the dictionary, don't you agree?

Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of Kingsley Amis). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. And some of those who read this excerpt might be led to explore Amis's work....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mahonia gracilipes

I photographed this "relaxed," "sprawly" shrub, native to the western Chinese province of Sichuan, on July 7, in Chapel Hill. That's a hosta to the lower right.

I fell in love with mahonias a few years ago when I saw a row of them in all their bloom and glory on the Carolina campus (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). My wife shortly thereafter discovered that we seemed to have a native mahonia growing down in the drainage easement in back. Since then she has planted six or eight mahonias in our yard—including this gracilipes, the newest.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The cement that holds true belief

My sister died early Saturday morning, and since then I've listened to various assurances that she has gone home to Jesus, etc. The certainty with which such assurances can be made has reminded me of what it is that really holds a true believer in place. It isn't the true believer's simply believing a proposition is true despite there being no evidence for it (aside, perhaps, from some hearsay about there having been a divine revelation).

No. I think that what really holds the true believer in place is his additionally believing that his very act of believing, if performed with enough faith or intensity, will make the proposition true. In the present case, if he believes with unwavering faith that my sister has indeed gone home to Jesus or whatever, then surely he too will go home, etc.

We've probably all been there. I was there, for example, in 1989, when I truly believed that I was going to win the Publishers Clearinghouse $10,000,000 Sweepstakes. I'd even had a revelation—a personal revelation in the form of a dream. But that wasn't enough to hold me in place. I daily recited "affirmations" that it was (or would be) so. I fervently, intensely believed. I truly believed it.

But it didn't come to pass. Any more than Jesus returned in the lifetimes of his associates who fervently believed that he would. Any more than the world has come to an end on the schedule of any one of various true believers who have predicted it would. Etc.

I said we've probably all been there. The tip-off is the word "affirmations." We've all lived through a period of vocal New Age proselytization, abetted by any number of bestselling books about becoming a big success in life. That is, we've all, whether "religious" or not, been somewhat conditioned to believe that we can make something happen if we only believe it strongly enough.

Magical thinking. At least when it comes to influencing things outside our own nervous system over which we have no control.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"The girls went to sit with Wally"

On June 23...

After we'd eaten all of the pastries and drunk all of the coffee, the girls went to sit on the glider with Wally....

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just the book to give to your sister

Recommendations for Flann O'Brien's first novel

"A real writer, with the true comic spirit." – James Joyce

"If I were cultural dictator in England I would make At Swim-Two-Birds compulsory reading in all universities." – Philip Toynbee

"At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth are both marvels of imagination, language, and humor." – Niall Montgomery, The New Republic

"At Swim-Two-Birds is just the book to give your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." – Dylan Thomas

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Grand Inquisitor "knew"

One of Christopher Hitchens's thematic quotes at the beginning of his God Is Not Great:
Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward. —The Grand Inquisitor to his "Savior" in The Brothers Karamazov
So many of my posts over recent weeks have had to do with religion, and perhaps specifically with the question of the afterlife. A dear nephew of mine supposes, perhaps completely rightly, that the motive of religious belief at all is the believer's hope of eternal life. And of course, to be fair, I have to ask whether I myself am a good deal more concerned about this than I think. I don't think that I'm concerned about it in the least. I don't fear to die (though I do fear to maunder in a nursing home or somewhere, among unfamiliar things and people, waiting for the moment; among Richard Feynman's last recorded words was the statement: "God, I'm never going to do this again—what a bore").

At times I've felt so jubilantly alive and "fulfilled," that I've felt (and said aloud) that I could die at that moment and have no regrets. At other times, I've been so looking forward to accomplishing something in "this terrestrial realm," that I almost desperately wanted not to die...yet. That's the state I'm in now, as my friend's book is at the printer, we're readying our web site to sell it, and we're waiting expectantly to see how it sells....

And the second of my sisters to die awaits her going this very weekend. She's not expected to survive it. I know (or, again, let's be fair: I think) that she believes she will survive death and live eternally in some sense, in some realm. Our sister who died a couple of years ago already knows for sure...or knows nothing whatsoever. And my sister who awaits death this weekend will soon know for sure...or know nothing. And those of us who haven't gone yet do not know yet...and may never know anything at all.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Who knows?"

On the penultimate page of David Lodge's novel Paradise News, Bernard reads a quotation from Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, sent to him from Hawaii by the woman whose car knocked his father down:
In the most secret recess of the spirit of the man who believes that death will put an end to his personal consciousness and even to his memory forever, in that inner recess, even without his knowing it perhaps, a shadow hovers, a vague shadow lurks, a shadow of a shadow of uncertainty, and while he tells himself: "There is nothing for it but to live this passing life, for there is no other!" at the same time he hears, in his most secret recess, his own doubt murmur: "Who knows?..." He is not sure he hears aright, but he hears.
      Likewise, in some recess of the soul of the true believer who has faith in the future life, a muffled voice, the voice of uncertainty, murmurs in his spirit's ear: "Who knows?..." Perhaps these voices are no louder than the buzzing of mosquitoes when the wind roars through the trees in the woods; we scarcely make out the humming, and yet, mingled with the roar of the storm, it can be heard. How, without this uncertainty, could we ever live? [p. 293 (of Paradise News)]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Are you a triskaidekaphobe?

Dictionary.com tells us that the "Word of the Day for Friday, July 13, 2007" is:
triskaidekaphobia \tris-ky-dek-uh-FOH-bee-uh\, noun: A morbid fear of the number 13 or the date Friday the 13th.

Thirteen people, pledged to eliminate triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, today tried to reassure American sufferers by renting a 13 ft plot of land in Brooklyn for 13 cents...a month. – Daily Telegraph, January 14, 1967

Past disasters linked to the number 13 hardly help triskaidekaphobics overcome their affliction. The most famous is the Apollo 13 mission, launched on April 11, 1970 (the sum of 4, 11 and 70 equals 85 - which when added together comes to 13), from Pad 39 (three times 13) at 13:13 local time, and struck by an explosion on April 13. – "It's just bad luck that the 13th is so often a Friday," Electronic Telegraph, September 8, 1996
Triskaidekaphobia is from Greek treiskaideka, triskaideka, thirteen (treis, three + kai, and + deka, ten) + phobos, fear. In Christian countries the number 13 was considered unlucky because there were thirteen persons at the Last Supper of Christ. Fridays are also unlucky, because the Crucifixion was on a Friday. Hence a Friday falling on the thirteenth day is regarded as especially unlucky. Some famous triskaidekaphobes: Napoleon, Herbert Hoover, Mark Twain, Richard Wagner, Franklin Roosevelt. – "It's just bad luck that the 13th is so often a Friday," Electronic Telegraph, September 8, 1996
Obviously, the reasons for regarding Friday the 13th to be unlucky are no less foolish than most other superstitious or religious "reasoning." But if superstitious we must be, how about if we regard Friday the 13th as a powerful day, a good day to take off and do something for ourself or someone else?

And of course the frequency of Fridays' the 13th has nothing to do with luck, but with the mathematical logic of our Gregorian calendar....

"Open Casting Call"

This may be the chance you were waiting for—a casting call yesterday on the blog Lightness of Being. It begins:
Casting call! Come hither, come all! We are opening our casting calls. This is your free ticket to stardom. Come hither, come all, your fifteen minutes of fame is knocking on your door!

The larger conglomerates of dominating media are currently looking for the following actors in the continuing saga that is the “War on Terror.”

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tired of signing petitions

To the latest request to sign a petition to be delivered to the White House (sent by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) one particularly disgruntled American responded yesterday:
I loathe "president" Bush, and I have signed on to many, many petitions, some of which were said to be going to be delivered to the man himself. I can't address him without getting angry and disrespectful (even though in my opinion this loathsome person deserves none, and I don't think I'm disrespecting the office of the President of the United States by saying that, for I couldn't begin to disrespect the office to a fraction of the extent to which Bush has already done that by his treasonous behavior). I'm no longer young, but I'd help hold the tar bucket or a sack of feathers if a million Americans invaded the White House to evict this despicable embarrassment to our country.

Sheep and goats

Dedicated to my friend Tom

After looking up at his students to see whether they seemed to be listening [most of them did], Bernard (in David Lodge's novel Paradise News) concludes the term's opening lecture:
"Modern theology therefore finds itself in a classic double bind: on the one hand the idea of a personal God responsible for creating a world with so much evil and suffering in it logically requires the idea of an afterlife in which these things are rectified and compensated for; on the other hand, traditional concepts of the afterlife no longer command intelligent belief, and new ones, like Rahner's, do not capture the popular imagination—indeed, they are incomprehensible to ordinary laypeople. It is not surprising that the focus of modern theology has turned more and more upon the Christian transformation of this life, whether in the form of Bonhoeffer's 'religionless Christianity,' or Tillich's Christian existentialism, or various types of Liberation Theology.
      "But if you purge Christianity of the promise of eternal life (and, let us be honest, the threat of eternal punishment) which traditionally underpinned it, are you left with anything that is distinguishable from secular humanism? One answer is to turn that question around and ask what secular humanism has got that isn't derived from Christianity.
      "There is a passage in Matthew, Chapter 25, which seems particularly relevant here. Matthew is the most explicitly apocalyptic of the synoptic gospels, and this section of it is sometimes referred to by scholars as the Sermon on the End. It concludes with the well-known description of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on the throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Pure myth. But on what grounds does Christ the King separate the sheep from the goats? Not, as you might expect, fervency of religious faith, or orthodoxy of religious doctrine, or regularity of worship, or observance of the Commandments, or indeed anything 'religious' at all.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.' Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and go to see you?' And the King will answer, 'I tell you solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.'
The virtuous seem quite surprised to be saved, or to be saved for this reason, doing good in an unselfish but pragmatic and essentially this-worldly sort of way. It's as if Jesus left this essentially humanist message knowing that one day all the supernatural mythology in which it was wrapped would have to be discarded."
      Bernard caught the eye of one of the nuns, and essayed an impromptu joke: "It's almost as if someone tipped him off." The nun reddened, and dropped her eyes. [pp. 282-283]
Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of David Lodge). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. It's more like calling the friend over to my reading chair and saying, "Come here, look over my shoulder. What do you think of this?"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In doubt about where we end out

Back in Rummidge from his trip to Hawaii, Bernard (in David Lodge's novel Paradise News) is giving the term's opening lecture, which might be titled "End Doubts":
"Traditional Christianity was essentially teleological and apocalyptic. It presented both individual and collective human life as a linear plot moving towards an End, followed by timelessness: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. This life was a preparation for eternal life, which alone gave this life meaning. To the question, 'Why did God make you?' the Catechism answered, 'God made me to know him, love him, and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.' But the concepts and images of this next world which have come down to us in Christian teaching no longer have any credibility for thoughtful, educated men and women. The very idea of an afterlife for individual human beings has been regarded with scepticism and embarrassment—or silently ignored—by nearly every major twentieth-century theologian. Bultmann, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, for example, even the Jesuit Karl Rahner, all dismissed traditional notions of personal survival after death. For Bultmann, the concept of 'translation to a heavenly world of light, in which the self is destined to receive a heavenly vesture, a spiritual body,' was 'not merely incomprehensible by any rational process' but 'totally meaningless'....
      "Of course, there are still many Christians who believe fervently, even fanatically, in an anthropomorphic afterlife, and there are many more who would like to believe in it. Nor is there any shortage of Christian pastors eager to encourage them, some sincerely, some, like the TV evangelists of America, with more dubious motives. Fundamentalism has flourished precisely on the eschatological scepticism of responsible theology, so that the most active and popular forms of Christianity today are also those which are the most intellectually impoverished. The same seems to be true of other great world religions. In this, as in so many other areas of twentieth century life, the lines of W. B. Yeats hit the nail on the head:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
                                          [pp. 280-281]
[The conclusion of the lecture will be posted tomorrow under "Sheep and goats."]
Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of David Lodge). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. It's more like calling the friend over to my reading chair and saying, "Come here, look over my shoulder. What do you think of this?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bernard's personal revelation

Bernard (in David Lodge's Paradise News) continues to write into his journal the story that he regrets not having told his friend:
You don't have to go very deep into the philosophy of religion to discover that it is impossible either to prove or to disprove the truth of any religious proposition. For rationalists, materialists, logical positivists, etc., that is a sufficient reason for dismissing the entire subject from serious consideration. But to believers a non-disprovable God is almost as good as a provable God, and self-evidently better than No God at all, since without God there is no encouraging answer to the perennial problems of evil, misfortune, and death. The circularity of theological discourse, which uses revelation to apprehend a God for whose existence there is no evidence outside revelation (pace Aquinas), does not trouble the believer, for belief itself is outside the theological game, it is the arena in which the theological game is played. It is a gift, the gift of faith, something you acquire or have thrust upon you, through baptism or on the road to Damascus. Whitehead said that God is not the great exception to all metaphysical principles to save them from collapse, but unfortunately, from a philosophical point of view, that is exactly what He is, and Whitehead never found a convincing argument to the contrary.
      So everything depends on belief. Grant the existence of a personal God, the Father, and the whole body of Catholic doctrine hangs together reasonably well. Grant that, and you can bat all day. Grant that, and you can afford to have a few mental reservations about the odd doctrine—the existence of Hell, say, or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—without feeling insecure in your faith. And that was what I did, precisely—I took my belief for granted. I didn't seriously question it, or closely examine it. It defined me. It explained why I was who I was, doing what I did, teaching theology to seminarians. I didn't discover that my belief had gone until I left the seminary. [pp. 149-150]
      All the radical demythologizing theology that I had spent most of my life resisting suddenly seemed self-evidently true. Christian orthodoxy was a mixture of myth and metaphysics that made no kind of sense in the modern, post-Enlightenment world except when understood historically and interpreted metaphorically. Jesus, insofar as we could disentangle his real identity from the midrash of the early Gospel-writers, was clearly a remarkable man, with uniquely valuable (but enigmatic, very enigmatic) wisdom to impart, infinitely more interesting than comparable apocalyptic zealots who were characteristic of that period of Jewish history; and the story of his crucifixion (though not historically verifiable) was moving and inspiring. But the supernatural machinery of the story—the idea that he was God, "sent" by himself as Father from heaven to earth, born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead and returned to heaven, from whence he would return again on the last day to judge the living and the dead, etc., well, that too had its grandeur and symbolic force as a narrative, but it was no more credible than most of the other myths and legends about divinities that proliferated in the Mediterranean and Middle East at the same time.
      So here I was, an atheist priest, or at least an agnostic one. And I didn't dare to tell anyone.... [p. 154-154]
Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of David Lodge). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. It's more like calling the friend over to my reading chair and saying, "Come here, look over my shoulder. What do you think of this?"

Monday, July 9, 2007

The "paradise news"

In Chapter I of Part Two of Paradise News, David Lodge reveals what I think is the theological reference of his novel's title. Bernard has just returned from dinner with the woman who was driving the car that knocked his father down. He feels that he behaved clumsily and churlishly, having listened to her story but not having told her his. In a journal he has begun to keep in Hawaii, he writes, "I should have repaid her confidence. I should have told her the whole story. Something like this:
...My role [as a pastor] was clearly designated, "supernatural reassurance." They looked to the Church to provide a spiritual dimension to lives outwardly indistinguishable from those of their secular neighbours...They wanted me to marry them, to baptize their children, to comfort them in bereavement, and to relieve them from the fear of death. They wanted me to reassure them that if they were not as prosperous and successful as they might have wished, or if their spouses deserted them, or their children went off the rails, or they were stricken with fatal illnesses, it wasn't the end, it wasn't a reason to despair, there was another place, another time out of time, where everything would be compensated for, justice done, pain and loss made good, and we would all live happily ever after.
      That, after all, is what the language of the Mass promised them every Sunday....
      This has always been the basic appeal of Christianity—and no wonder. The vast majority of human lives in history have not been long, happy, and fulfilled....It explains why Christianity spread so rapidly among the poor and underprivileged, the conquered and the enslaved, in the Roman Empire of the first century....The appeal of the Gospel message, though, remains essentially the same. The Good News is news of eternal life, Paradise news...." [pp. 144, 151-153]
[More of the story Bernard would have told his friend in Hawaii will be posted tomorrow under "Bernard's personal revelation."]
Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of David Lodge). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. It's more like calling the friend over to my reading chair and saying, "Come here, look over my shoulder. What do you think of this?"

Sunday, July 8, 2007

No relief in sight

In researching limericks this morning, I discovered one I wrote some weeks ago that remains, oh, so appropriate in the context of "Religion X 3.0":
Religious war burns on and beleaguers
Iraq's Sunni and Shiite besiegers,
      But it brings no relief
      From dogmatic belief
But for stone-dead dogmatic believers.

A colder eye

Hugh Kenner is perhaps my favorite literary critic, and his book A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers is perhaps my favorite of his works. I was reminded of the phrase "a colder eye" this morning, as I quoted the following couplet from W.H. Auden:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell.
                – "The More Loving One"
This couplet reminded me of perhaps my favorite of all limericks, also written by Auden:
As the poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,
      The rolling-in-money,
      The screamingly funny,
And those who are very well hung.
                – "The Aesthetic Point of View"
And taking these two small verses together, I realized that Auden had as cold an eye as anyone...and I myself seem to have a colder eye. I'm skeptical, even at times sardonic (scornful, mocking, cynical—my standard attitude toward all things Bushevik; of course, when it comes to our "president," a lot of us are sardonic).

Maybe I really do have a colder eye, and that's why I'm so drawn to James Joyce and Flann O'Brien and W.B. Yeats? (Yeats's tombstone enjoins us:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!)
I've made a note now to re-read A Colder Eye.

"The Dead"

Something about the tone, the mood of my post Tuesday ("If not Scooter, then whom?") prompted me to re-read James Joyce's short story, the last one collected in Dubliners. I think I was remembering that haunting final paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Its pathos, its loss. Though I sense this quality of life, I feel it with a strange joy and contentment, for which I am deeply grateful. An appropriate feeling for a Sunday morning?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Cinematic exhilaration

You know that feeling you get upon reading a great novel or watching a great film? I know the feeling well, because I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and try to catch the good ones. Movies like the following (listed most recent first) just exhilarate me: "The Human Stain," "Breach," "For Your Consideration," "Déjà Vu," "Blood Diamond," "Hollywoodland," "Infamous," "The Last King of Scotland," "The Good Shepherd," "Keeping Mum," "Running with Scissors," "The World's Fastest Indian," and "The Devil Wears Prada." I just tingle and come alive while watching movies like these. I clap my hands, fidget, make side remarks (thank God that my wife tolerates this and also shares my taste in movies).

But when we see two movies in a row of the caliber I'm talking about, wow! We actually saw "Breach" and "The Human Stain" back-to-back, and over the past two days we've had this glorious experience again. The first movie was the taut, dramatic, perfectly plotted, utterly gripping tale, "Notes on a Scandal," directed by Richard Eyre and starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. I was struck by the remark of Zoe Heller, the author of the book on which the movie was based, that she deliberately concocted a "bait and switch" with the sophisticated narrative device of employing an apparently reliable narrator who later proves to be unreliable....

The second was a brilliant twist on the fictional device of having characters literally take on a life of their own and become unruly, which was exploited so well in novels by Flann O'Brien (At Swim-Two-Birds, 1939—James Joyce read it and said he was delighted) and Gilbert Sorrentino (Mulligan Stew, 1979). The movie is "Stranger Than Fiction," directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Queen Latifa, with Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in "Amadeus") in a delicious small part.

Put these films on your see list!

Religion X 3.0

Thursday on C-Span I saw part of a speech by Irshad Manji*, talking about her book The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. If I understood her, she holds that Islam is essentially a benign religion, but it has been applied in tyrannous ways by particular individuals or regimes. Her web site suggests examples:
  • the inferior treatment of women in Islam [she gave some horrific examples in her speech];
  • the Jew-bashing that so many Muslims persistently engage in; and
  • the continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamic regimes.
Hearing how passionately Manji could criticize Islam "from within" reminded me how little Muslims generally condemn abhorrent acts by other Muslims.

In Wednesday's New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote:
Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. But it's been widely noted that virtually all suicide terrorists today are Muslims. Angry Norwegians aren't doing this—nor are starving Africans or unemployed Mexicans. Muslims have got to understand that a death cult has taken root in the bosom of their religion, feeding off it like a cancerous tumor.

This cancer is erasing basic norms of civilization. In Iraq, we've seen suicide bombers blow up funerals and schools. In England, seven out of the eight people detained in the latest plot are Muslim doctors or medical students. Doctors plotting mass murder? Could that be? If Muslim leaders don't remove this cancer—and only they can—it will spread, tainting innocent Muslims and poisoning their relations with each other and the world.
Irshad Manji seems to be working hard toward excising the cancer (and placing herself in mortal danger, having received numerous death threats).

I wonder why not many Muslims are heard on this. Do they imagine that just because these suicide terrorists (and those who run them) are Muslims it doesn't follow that they are in any way acting in the name of Islam? Just statistically there would seem to be some critical Islamic correlation. Are Muslims afraid to condemn what I call religious tyranny within their communities because they feel that in doing so they would be perceived as apologizing for Islam itself? Muslims seem to love their religion assertively, if not aggressively. Perhaps they don't think it needs to be apologized for? One of the tenets of Islam, as I understand it, is that it offers God's final and finest word to mankind. To Muslims, Muhammad was God's Final Messenger, after all. Or, as Friedman cleverly puts it:
Two trends are at work [in the Muslim failure to condemn atrocities committed by Muslims]: humiliation and atomization. Islam's self-identity is that it is the most perfect and complete expression of God's monotheistic message, and the Koran is God's last and most perfect word. To put it another way, young Muslims are raised on the view that Islam is God 3.0. Christianity is God 2.0. Judaism is God 1.0. And Hinduism and all others are God 0.0.

One of the factors driving Muslim males, particularly educated ones, into these acts of extreme, expressive violence is that while they were taught that they have the most perfect and complete operating system, every day they're confronted with the reality that people living by God 2.0, God 1.0, and God 0.0 are generally living much more prosperously, powerfully, and democratically than those living under Islam. This creates a real dissonance and humiliation. How could this be? Who did this to us? The Crusaders! The Jews! The West! It can never be something that they failed to learn, adapt to, or build. This humiliation produces a lashing out.
I'm willing to accept, pending my continuing reading of the Qur'an, that Islam is, at its core, benign, even actively benevolent—as I'm willing to accept the same of Christianity and Judaism.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that when a particular religion, however fine in its pure form, is put into practice, it rarely remains pure. Depending on the purity of heart of the practitioner, the religion is subject to all manner of abuses (such as in the three areas Manji lists for Islam). Vile men intent on owning women as property are not likely to practice Islam benignly.

Or as the novelist David Lodge adduces in Paradise News, speaking of the mainland Christians who decimated the Hawaiian islanders:
We got talking [Bernard writes in his journal of his champagne conversation with the woman who knocked his father down with her car] about the permissive sexual mores of the ancient Polynesians, which Yolande described as "the kind of sexual Utopia we were all pursuing in the sixties—free love and nudity and communal childrearing. Only with them it wasn't a pose, they really lived it. Until the haoles came along with their hang ups and bibles and diseases." The sailors gave the beautiful amorous women of Hawaii the pox, and the missionaries made them wear muu-muus even in the sea so they sat about in damp clothes and caught cold. In seventy years the population of the island declined from 300,000 to 50,000.... [Well, decimation more than eight times over! p. 186]
Insofar as practitioners of any religion—call it "Religion X"—say that they are only doing what Religion X commands its true followers to do, Religion X even in its pure, presumably benign form sooner or later gets a lot of bad raps. People who don't follow Religion X might be tempted to write it off as an "evil religion" (as Sam Harris, for example, writes off Islam in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason). And the more or less benign followers of Religion X are put in the position of appearing to criticize it if they come out against the perverse acts of those who use it malignantly. But perhaps they must come out, if they are to preserve the core goodness of their religion and avoid an ugly backlash among non-followers who would condemn the whole religion for its tyrannous misuses.
I had never heard of Ms. Manji before, but I was impressed by her articulate speech, as I am by this information about her on her web site:
[She] travels the globe to lecture about the liberal reformation of Islam. Her audiences include Amnesty International, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the United Nations Press Corps, the Democratic Muslims of Denmark, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, the International Women’s Forum, the Swedish Defense Research Agency, the Pentagon, the Jean Jacques Rousseau Institute, and universities from Cambridge to the President Clinton School of Public Service.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The reading is great

If the writings of the atheists are so much more in vogue today than anything by the "believers" (and they are more in vogue, aren't they?), I'm wondering whether it isn't because what the atheists are saying seems more to the point and sometimes even more inspirational?

At any rate, I'm relishing the latest "atheist book," God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And I don't even grant that "religion poisons everything," which is an obviously overgrasping, sell-some-more-books sort of thing to say. Plus, if God actually exists, then I'm certain that He (or She or It) is very great indeed, thank you very much, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (the author of the latest). Hitchens's book crackles with erudition. And, because I've become surer of my own tolerant position in the middle—where I "believe all things"—I'm finding it very entertaining.

For you to enjoy with me if you can, here are some excerpts from Chapter Five, "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion." I may have enjoyed this chapter particularly, because it sort of surveys the territory I trod as an undergraduate forty-five years ago:
...Aquinas half believed in astrology, and was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was contained inside each individual sperm. One can only mourn over the dismal and stupid lectures on sexual continence that we might have been spared if this nonsense had been exposed earlier than it was...He also fabricated the mad and cruel idea that the souls of unbaptized children were sent to "Limbo." Who can guess the load of misery that this diseased "theory" has placed on millions of Catholic parents down the years, until its shamefaced and only partial revision by the church in our own time? Luther was terrified of demons and believed that the mentally afflicted were the devil's work. Muhammad is claimed by his own followers to have thought, as did Jesus, that the desert was pullulating with djinns, or evil spirits. [p.64]
      ...Laplace (1749-1827) was the brilliant French scientist who took the work of Newton a stage further and showed by means of mathematical calculus how the operations of the solar system were those of bodies revolving systematically in a vacuum. When he later turned his attention to the stars and nebulae, he postulated the idea of gravitational collapse and implosion, or what we now breezily term the "black hole." In a five-volume book entitled Celestial Mechanics he laid all this out, and like many men of his time was also intrigued by the orrery, a working model of the solar system as seen, for the first time, from the outside. These are now commonplace but were then revolutionary, and the emperor asked to meet Laplace in order to be given either a set of the books or (accounts differ) a version of the orrery. I personally suspect that the gravedigger of the French Revolution wanted the toy rather than the volumes: he was a man in a hurry and had managed to get the church to baptize his dictatorship with a crown. At any event, and in his childish and demanding and imperious fashion, he wanted to know why the figure of god [Hitchens doesn't capitalize the word] did not appear in Laplace's mind-expanding calculations. And there came the cool, lofty, and considered response. "Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.".... [pp.66-67]
      One medieval philosopher and theologian who continues to speak eloquently across the ages is William Ockham....
      He was interested, for example, in the stars. He knew far less about the nebulae than we do, or than Laplace did. In fact, he knew nothing about them at all. But he employed them for an interesting speculation. Assuming that god can make us feel the presence of a nonexistent entity, and further assuming that he need not go to this trouble if the same effect can be produced in us by the actual presence of that entity, god could still if he wished cause us to believe in the existence of stars without their being actually present. "Every effect which God causes through the mediation of a secondary cause he can produce immediately by himself." However, this does not mean that we must believe in anything absurd, since "God cannot cause in us knowledge such that by it a thing is seen evidently to be present though it is absent, for that involves a contradiction."...
      ...It has taken us several hundred years since Ockham to come to the realization that when we gaze up at the stars, we very often are seeing light from distant bodies that have long since ceased to exist. It doesn't particularly matter that the right to look through telescopes and speculate about the result was obstructed by the church; this is not Ockham's fault and there is no general law that obliges the church to be that stupid...[W]e can now do this [knowing] while dropping (or even, if you insist, retaining) the idea of a god. But in either case, the theory works without that assumption. You can believe in a divine mover if you choose, but it makes no difference at all, and belief among astronomers and physicists has become private and fairly rare. [pp. 69-70]
      Credo quia absurdum, as the "church father" Tertullian put it, either disarmingly or annoyingly according to your taste. "I believe it because it is absurd." It is impossible to quarrel seriously with such a view. If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished. The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more "miraculous" and "transcendent" than any theology.
      Actually, the "leap of faith"—to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it—is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a "leap" that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the "leap" is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn't in fact rely on "faith" at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected "proofs." This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion's monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are. [p. 71]
Ah, my potato-sack miracle! my two angelic interventions! Reading Hitchens leaves me with the contented feeling of a reader enjoying himself and not feeling dismayed by the multifarious contradictions of a world that seems more and more to be mad enough to have been made by the Being its beings into Being prayed.

People can (and will!) continue to believe what they want to believe, and I will not condemn them, so long as they do so benignly, not proselytizing me or others or trying to tyrannize us in any way.

Only thing is, of course, what are the chances of that?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

First-person report of two angelic interventions

On Friday I wrote to two people whom I told that an angel may have been prompted me to do so. One was my cousin Evelyn. I told her that I had thought of her so often lately, I wondered whether something was going on with her and her husband. She said that there didn't seem to be, but maybe the angel was prompting me to give her the occasion to remind me of the family reunion scheduled for this September in Nashville. Immediately upon reading this I had an inrush of feeling that indeed perhaps it was time for me to give up my rather wrong-headed, curmudgeonly stance regarding the get-together and...just go. I called all three of my surviving sisters and learned that the two of them who are physically able do plan to go to Nashville in September. Now I do too.

The other person I wrote to was my old boss at the University of North Carolina. He retired a few years ago and we've pretty regularly kept in touch. But I hadn't heard from him for several months. He wrote back that my timing was "amazing," for the very next day he and his wife were leaving town for six months....

Angelic inverventions? Perhaps. I like to think so. If this be religion, it seems to be only benign, no possibility of tyranny anywhere in sight.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


On Sunday I added a couple of sentences to the "about me" section of my blog profile: "I think I'm making progress [in finding out who I am]. How about you [in finding out who you are]?"

Then I went out and did a bit of gardening. As you may recall, the garden is my own personal church. Out there I found myself spontaneously recognizing that I seem to have made some progress in "finding out who I am." I reflected that I had in recent days written a first-person report of a miracle and would shortly post another such report, this time of two angelic interventions. I reflected that I had just affirmed publicly on my blog my friendship with Tom Sheepandgoats (of the "Sheep and Goats" blog), with whom I suppose I have mostly seemed to be at odds ever since he visited my blog several months ago and we started to dispute about divine revelation. We are still not in agreement about that, anymore than I am with another friend whom Tom introduced me to, who wisely suggested that she and I "agree to disagree." I speak of Maliha (of the "Lightness of Being...forever in flight" blog: forever in flight from the mundane, the meaningless), who is also very skeptical of my skepticism. To her the things I'm skeptical of are "just obvious."

But I feel close to both of these people (whom, you understand, I've never met in person). I respect them, and I think, despite my being less tactful and generous than they are, that they respect me. Our hearts somehow—and large territories of our minds—seem to be in the same place.

Out in the garden, I was remembering that early in my correspondence with Tom, he bravely offered that I might be willing to sit down to dinner with him for friendly conversation. I am embarrassed to admit it, but—for the sake of honest self-disclosure—I do admit that I rudely rebuffed him. Tom, I apologize for that. The fact that you are still with me is eloquent testimony of your character. I hope that you might still feel inclined to that dinner. And Maliha, for her part, says, "I wouldn't be surprised if someday Tom, you, and I found ourselves sitting across a dinner table and chuckling over some of our correspondences. It would be a fine day indeed."

Chalk up to the civilizing influence of these two persons that I too now incline to that dinner conversation—as good evidence as I can offer that, in fact, I am making progress.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

If not Scooter, then whom?

So, you weren't surprised to learn that Bush had commuted Scooter's sentence? Neither was I. Nor should anyone have been. The handwriting was always there on the wall. But why should Scooter have been singled out anyway?

What about Cheenie himself (or "Himself" as he no doubt prefers, having arrogated unto Himself such Lordly powers as to be Untouchable)? What about the titularly head Bushevik himself? Georgie Porgie. Dubya. Shrub. The Twig.

But wait. What about the folks who should have known better but didn't and voted for Bush/Cheenie in 2000? Well...some of them didn't repeat that folly in 2004, so...what about the folks who voted for them in 2004? But...well, some of them regret it now, so...what about the folks who still approve of them?

And what about you and me, the ones who never voted for Bush/Cheenie once, having detected their true nature early on? What about our not having done much to oppose them? Maybe about all we've done is complain. Maybe made a few telephone calls to get out the Democratic vote in 2006? (To what end? we now wonder.) We haven't marched to Washington, haven't stood vigil outside the People's White House....

I joined a prayer group of unknown dimensions last night at 9 EDT. I had been invited the same day by an elderly cousin (not that I'm not practically "elderly" myself now) to pray "for the safety of the United States of America, our troops, our citizens, and for peace in the world." You can tell by the first three items in the list that this undertaking may have been inspired by our upcoming Independence Day celebration. Never mind.

At 9 o'clock, I found myself virtually drowned in my awareness of the vast array of creation that in some sense "needed" our prayers. I thought of my list of human attrocities posted Saturday. All of the attrocities have victims. And maybe the perpetrators of the attrocities are in need of prayer even more than the victims. And what could a prayer do? Surely God (be there a God, and be God "good") already knows all of this. None of our prayers would seem to be required to notify God. Could there, then, be some metaphysical force in prayer—in joined prayer—maybe a critical mass of prayerful awareness that could make some sort of difference, if its awareness were cast wide enough to include the potential victims of murder and mayhem in Iraq, and the violent men who massacre them, and the victims of the erosion of our Constitution, and the misguided men on Bush's Supreme Court who subvert it, and the indeterminate victims of Cheenie's arrogance, and Cheenie himself, and the teenagers in New York, and the police personnel who harrass them, and the wrongly convicted innocents, and the prosecutors who suppress evidence (and the oblivious jurors who allow themselves to forget about reasonable doubt), and the crowds of meek people facing genocide in Africa and other places, and the men who shoot, rape, and mutilate them, and journalists in Russia, and Putin's henchmen who murder them, and the disrespected women of the world, and the dark-minded people who "circumcise" them or stone them or imprison them in seraglios or burn them alive, and the children kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, and those who kidnap and sell them, and those who pay to abuse them, and the children in American who have no health care insurance, and the politicians and insurers who ensure that they continue not to have it, and all of the unidentified victims, and their unidentified abusers, and ourselves who have done little to oppose their victimhood or the acts that make them victims...?