Jan 112016

Wheaton College, that Evangelical dynamo, has gotten itself in trouble with the Opinionifiers by talking about firing Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins became famous for 1) wearing a headscarf “in solidarity with Muslims,” and 2) saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. #2 is of the greater weight with her employer, #1 with those Engines of Publick Ignorance, the Mass and Social Media. I have some minor sympathy for the position of the College: boundaries are important, as the miserable condition of my birth denomination, The Episcopal Church, shows. It fell into the hands of professional obfuscators who have made it difficult to describe what an Episcopalian believes, if anything. So it’s nice to see some sort of boundary defense. The #2 issue is interesting but maybe not determinable. For many Christians, the uniqueness of Jesus is foundational, and the common opinion, spread around for years by many, that Allah and Yahweh are sort of the same, strikes at that uniqueness. So it’s not trivial.

Watching the firestorm, it struck me that it might be amusing to revive an old technique: the Publick Debate. Let the Professor (pro) and the President of Wheaton (con) argue formally the question: Resolved, that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are one and the same. Some ground rules would have to be worked out: perhaps the source material should be limited to the Scripture of the two faiths alone, and no appeal to other authority or hermeneutic allowed. Some sort of boundary, anyway. A jury (the number 11 comes to mind somehow) would determine the winner. The jury perhaps could be made up of Wheaties Wheaton graduates now on the theological or philosophical faculties of other schools. How would they be selected? Would a bare majority be sufficient for a decision, or a supermajority? Details, details. And then there’s the question of a debate moderator: what fun there is to be had there. A neutral site might best be found, to minimize the risk of lightning strikes.  If Hawkins is found to make a reasonable, approximately scholarly, argument on behalf of her opinion, she gets to keep her job. If not, well, she needn’t worry. Someone will hire her. In any event, the issue would have been (we hope) capably aired, the National Press would have had to retire to their dictionaries and encyclopedias, and a jolly good time would have been had by the rest of us.

Jan 042016

Some weeks ago, I took my granddaughter to the ‘pumpkinfest’ thrown by her school’s PTA. No pumpkin chuckin’, alas, but they did hire a balloon twister. So what did the kids stand in line for? Swords and guns. The gym was soon full of balloon mayhem. Observing them whale away at each another, I thought, “The eschaton isn’t going to get immanetized tonight.” Yeah, I really did. Sorry about that.

The great Gene Wolfe had a novel out in October. A Borrowed Man is set in a near future North America. It’s a technologically proficient society. Environmental concerns have been mitigated – the sky is clear, the air and water pure, population drastically reduced, human cloning is common, and some sort of deep brain scan allows memories to be downloaded into clones. The narrator  is such a clone, a ‘copy’ of a writer of mysteries and science fiction from an earlier time. At a guess, the original lived maybe a century from our own time, and died maybe 50 years before the time of the story. This is the story of his adventures.

The air may be breathable, the water drinkable, yet the world is unpleasant. The police are brutal. The countryside is littered with wrecked towns inhabited by near-feral packs of poor people. These poor are not fed. The clones, although fully human, are considered property, and may be disposed of willy-nilly. “Library clones,” such as the narrator, maybe disposed of if they are not “checked out” often enough, and the disposal process is cruel. Though Wolfe doesn’t state it clearly, the behavior of the narrator, the actions he does not take, his ready assent to the rules of being a library clone, suggest that they are to some degree conditioned, their freedom of will shackled. This is dystopia. Technology masks the evil and patches the cracked surface, no more. The world of A Borrowed Man is similar to those of Home Fires and An Evil Guest. Human evil persists.

A Borrowed Man shares a bit of the background to William Gibson’s The Peripheral from last year. A catastrophe has nearly exterminated humankind, but high technology emerged that allowed just in time to allow “1 percenters” and wealthy nation-states to survive and accumulate immense power. The surviving 1 percenters are mostly horrible. Their horribleness is barely constrained by governments that are themselves complicit with these horrible people. Through yet another mysterious technological marvel (The Peripheral is full of McGuffins and Alien Space Bats), some of the more minimally decent people gain access to an alternate time line that exists just before the tipping point into catastrophe (it should be pointed out that there are multiple such time lines, most of them kept as private playgrounds by very bad people). They place high technology into the hands of ordinary but clever people who may be able to prevent or divert the catastrophe. It’s deus ex machina stuff. Gibson asks us to believe that a technologically enabled underclass can bring about a better outcome; a bit Marxist, that. I think that the human record is that our normative state is to seek the unconstrained exercise of our will, so I doubt things would actually work out so happily. Gibson tends to work in loosely-bound trilogies, so we will have to await the eventual outcome of the alternate time line until Gibson himself observes it.

Gibson builds up his world through detailed descriptions of things and people and their relationships. In his later style, Wolfe hints, but does not tell. Anything may become significant, even a color, and maybe not until a fourth or fifth reading.

I find it intriguing that, in The Peripheral, much of the action of the protagonists in the earlier, alternate, timeline, is directed to making room for family life: this is a bit similar to the efforts of the protagonist-characters in his previous group, beginning with Pattern Recognition. Similarly, the clone narrator of A Borrowed Man makes arrangements that he hopes will prolong his existence a bit, and make his life bearable.

One could go on. Utopias and dystopias are staples of fiction. We write them and read them out of a sense of human bent-ness. It’s all around us, visible and stark, but we tend to close our eyes, or concentrate on only a part of it. Wolfe’s dystopia seems somewhat more dire: both give us depopulated worlds. Gibson’s is the result of a concatenation of errors, some preventable. I fear that Wolfe’s depopulation was a  deliberate, a Stalinist,  act.  Humankind has shown itself capable of all varieties of horrors; technology seems to magnify but not improve our natures.

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Dec 102015

Christians are reminded, maybe not often enough, that we are all made in the Image of God; equally, we have all sinned and fallen short of that Glory that made the heavens and the earth. Even politicians are made in God’s own Image. Even Donald Trump. Even Hillary Clinton.

So when we are obliged, as we are in a democracy, to consider the merits and demerits of those who present themselves for public office, we must consider the policies they advocate and what we can guess of their character, but do so without animus. “That is a terrible idea” isn’t the same as “You are a terrible person.” We are all terrible people, in some way. Of course, an aspiring office holder may by the ideas they advocate, by their manner of life, by behavior, demonstrate that they do not meet the Minimal Decency Rule.

Donald Trump, who is a bully and an oaf, for some reason decided to run for the Presidency, and as a Republican.* A bit of a mystery, that. The Eeyore party is too delighted by his candidacy to be puzzled by it; he distracts them from the appalling candidates they’ve thrown up. The Heffalumps are finally noticing that he’s a center for disaffection. A fair chunk of the public thinks that our institutions are failing us, that substantial action is needed to reverse the trend toward mandarin government and its bumbling intrusion into daily life. Of course, Trump is just such a mandarin himself. I doubt that a Trump administration will see a revival of the Federal ideal, a restoration of fiscal stability, and a penetrating and effective foreign and military policy in the heritage of George Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Scoop Jackson, and Sam Nunn. Not at all.

Of course, no one has actually voted for Mr. Trump. The numerous polls are, it seems to me, likely wrong, and are more intended to shape “public opinion” than to reveal it.

*Since all politicians trim and lie, how do you tell genuine Heffalumps from genuine Eeyores? Heffalumps by and large (it’s complicated) at least pay lip service to the Constitution and at least say they place primacy on the individual’s liberties. By his contempt for the Constitution and obvious thirst for self-aggrandizement, I decline to call Mr. Trump a Heffalump. Of course, in our strange society, one is what one identifies oneself as, so . . . Contrawise, Eeyores are more or less frank in their contempt of the Constitution, from Woody Wilson onwards, and emphasize notional social issues over individual liberties. Both tend to be in the pocket of one form or another of economy-strangling Crony Capitalists.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Oct 142015

Ben Carson has been getting heat about ill-advised comments about Jews, Nazis, and self-defense. I like Dr. Ben, but I don’t think he’s the right guy to scrub up the mess that the next president will inherit. But I’m a lousy picker anyway, so we’ll leave that alone. For some reasoned and well informed critique of Carson’s comments (wait. Carson’s Comments would be a great magazine title) from the right, you might look here and here. I’m more interested in what we may as well call the presuppositions that I find behind his comments.
(1) One strand of modern American feeling raises the status of victim to a position of privilege, to such an extent that some folks seek out the status, or find it in the most trivial circumstances. Carson upholds another strand – you don’t have to be a victim. Or if you must, you can go down fighting.
(2) His comments should lead us to ask what a citizen’s rights are when their government does not provide effective police and protective services. How far do our rights to self defense go?
(3) Cutting deeper, what are the citizen’s rights if the government becomes an active agent of injustice, as happened in Nazi Germany? I recall – and am happy to be corrected – a suggestion that the Founders considered an armed populace to be the final check against government oppression. We do not, at this time, think much about the moral limits


of government action. Perhaps we should.

Much of the professional commentariat seems incapable of recognizing this sort of background, and in any event the progressive faction doesn’t want the issue of the individual’s response when the polity imposes its will.  There’s a little inclination to strive for “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”


 Posted by at 9:00 am
Aug 242015

Were it discovered that cats or dogs, lions or horses, rhinos or tigers, were bred so their offspring could be extracted and their component parts harvested, celebrities would trample one another in their rush to the microphone, and PETA would be in the streets.  How is it that we have come to this point?

Aug 192015

Take a little time to get the granddaughter set up for kindergarten, and all Arkham breaks loose, doesn’t it?

This summer became an inadvertent Gene Wolfe/Tim Powers immersion event, which is another story and another discussion.  I promised myself a C. S. Lewis immersion in turn. I’ll begin that in earnest as soon as I find all my books WHICH SOMEONE HAS MOVED AROUND.  Hmph.  I have begun with The Abolition of Man, which I DID MANAGE TO FIND UNDER A PILE OF OTHER STUFF (ahem) and found this gem of a footnote (from chapter 2)

It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values; those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked.  Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van:  peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

A great load of acute observation lies within this. CSL was a perceptive social observer and critic.


Jun 292015

Denial is a River in the Heart

The heart is deceitful above all things, saith Jeremy, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?. Now here’s an instance we where we need no assumptions of the veracity of Scripture to agree with it; it’s truth is declared every day as we behold seething deceit, insatiable greed, violence, sudden and unaccountable lusts, selfishness amounting to clinical narcissism, betrayal, murderous anger; is there an end to the list? Nor are our own hearts exempt, though we spurn the knowledge. We are very happy loudly to proclaim the failings of others, but we exempt our selves. But none are exempt, and that’s perilous to ignore.

Awareness of our deceit should make us cautious.


Nov 062014

Lemme tell you some things about Illinois.

The economy is in the tank and has been for years.
Taxes are high.
So is unemployment.
Our government looks like a boa constrictor that swallowed a sheep.
Too many of our politicians have been the larval form of “felon.”


On this last election day, a day when the Heffalump Party made well-nigh historic gains across the electoral board, but especially in state legislatures, the Heffalump candidate for Governor of Illinois managed to collect just barely over 50% of the votes cast. The Heffalumps managed to not even slightly dent the vast majorities controlled by Illinois Speaker of the House Emperor Palpatine Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President Darth Vader John Cullerton. Not. A. Dent.

The Governor Elect, Bruce Rauner, is a rich guy who ran a pretty bruising campaign. He sometimes gets a deer-in-the-headlights look when policy questions come flying at him, but he showed a bit of the brawler in his campaign. He’ll need it to go toe-to-toe with Madigan and Cullerton.

But he’s already muttering about taxes, and not about cutting them. Now that, without first establishing a record as a parsimonious S.O.B. who has razored every unnecessary expense out of the budget, has worked to get Illinois out of the bond market, is a one way ticket to Onetermsville. Same old, same old. He’s in for a 4 year brawl if he wants to reform this place.

 Posted by at 11:07 am
Feb 122014

Amidst rising tensions between the United States of America and the recently formed Confederate States of America, Presiding Bishop Justinian Wellenough of the Protestant Episcopal Church offered his services to the rival factions.  In telegrams to the two Presidents-elect, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, Bishop Wellenough noted that February 12 was President-elect Lincoln’s birthday.  ”What better day to begin a facilitated conversation directed toward establishing a safe space to discuss our differences,” Bishop Wellenough noted.   “We must be able to recognize that our disagreements need not divide us.  It is the necessity of the Gospel that as Jesus reconciled us to the Father, we must work toward the gracious reconciliation of man with man.”

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
Dec 142013

And I shall, and avoid the next part of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Jackson’s sensibility, never very harmonious with Tolkien’s, has been set free by box office success to run amok.  Tolkien’s modest children’s book was little more than a draft or plot summary for Part I. So I shall not contribute to the box office numbers of this round. I won’t be missed, and I don’t need the popcorn.

It is interesting to speculate (and perhaps someone has done this work. If so, and if my reader knows of it, leave a comment) the differing perceptions of those whose first encounter with Tolkien’s work has been through the texts, and those whose first encounter has been through the lens of Jackson’s work. How do movie-first readers perceive the books? What do they find difficult or unsatisfying? What do they find more interesting than the movie version? If our culture is ever more visually dominated, what is lost when text becomes secondary to image? Those who for decades had only the text, were free to create their own images, and change them at will; Jackson’s work collapses the probability function, as it were, crystallizing Legolas into Orlando Bloom.  Can that mold be broken?  Hm.

 Posted by at 6:38 am