Tuesday, December 27, 2016


A blessed feast of St. John the Evangelist to any readers I happen to have. That's today, which happens to be the third day of Christmas. And here's a really cute way to tie the feast day to the topic of this post: It is only in St. John's Gospel that we find the story of the wedding at Cana! So I managed to find an excuse for putting up this post on this particular day. Rim shot!

In real fact, the topic is on my mind because of a debate on Facebook. (What else, right?)

The approximate question at issue was whether or not Christians in the (approximately, evangelical Protestant) church make an "idol" of marriage. Plus assorted other questions such as whether an emphasis upon marriage and questions to young people such as a parents' asking a young man, "When are you going to get married?" understandably make the recipient of the question feel like he is insufficiently valued as an individual.

Now, I don't go to a lot of Protestant evangelical churches, because I'm a member of a continuing Anglican church. So one could argue that I lack information. That is perhaps true, but I do keep in touch with the evangelical scene through a host of friends, through activities like concerts, and through the Internet. And I just don't see this "idolatry" of marriage. On the contrary, I see too many evangelical and other Christian young people not taking an intentional stance toward marriage, not openly talking about their desire for it, not treating it as a normal part of life, and in particular (and in this last point I'm thinking chiefly of young men) not pursuing it actively. Not asking girls out, not getting on a dating site (if your local region is really that devoid of local talent or if you've been having difficulties finding someone), not asking yourself if your standards of physical beauty are artificial and unrealistic. I see late marriage becoming a norm without any excuses given. Very late marriage among the heathens makes a certain amount of perverse sense, because the heathen aren't waiting for marriage for sex (of some kind or another) and often don't value forming families and having babies. Or they consider waiting and then undergoing elaborate fertility treatments to be normal. But for Christians, a failure of intentionality about marriage is not terribly defensible. Even an open, "Gee, I'd like to find a girlfriend and get married, but the economy stinks, and I don't have a job. What should I do?" would be better than the sort of taboo that seems to surround talk of marriage. And in Christian circles there is the additional oddity of what I might call "millenial prudery." Some millenial Christians may tell you that the F-bomb is just another word, but try telling the guys that they might want to get married for reasons of chastity and you've apparently said something dirty and unspiritual.

So I admit to just not seeing this "marriage idolatry" that I'm hearing about.

But here are some further questions: Given that Christians are supposed to find their all in all in Jesus Christ, do we need to be teaching more young people that "Jesus is enough" and doing more to affirm the value of the single individual? Is there a real danger that the kinds of things I said in the last paragraph will a) teach people (if they listen to them) to be too "earthly minded" or b) wrongly encourage people to place their true worth in whether or not they are married?

To answer this, let me first say that I think the Catholics are right to have a separate value for celibacy (and even virginity) that is its "own thing," separate from the value for marriage. This seems to me to be clear-thinking and robust. Like extreme poverty, singleness may be a special, difficult, and powerful way of testifying to and serving the kingdom of God. So by no means am I saying that anyone who doesn't get married, or even (more radically) anyone who deliberately chooses not to get married, is doing something immoral. St. Paul makes it very clear that some people legitimately remain single for reasons of being wholly devoted to serving the Lord. He even hints that this is in some sense the better way. Hence the Catholic idea of monks, priests, and nuns who embrace celibacy deliberately.

But that sort of singleness should be highly intentional as well. Choosing singleness as a stony but valuable way of serving the kingdom of God doesn't look like this:  "Well, all the godly women I happen to meet these days aren't very attractive, and all the highly attractive women I meet aren't godly, so I guess I'll just go on my way for the time being, continuing not dating anyone and being single."

Moreover, the people who are truly called to singleness, in the sense of being especially suited for it, are and should be in the minority in the human race generally. God has set up marriage as the glorious way by which mankind is formed into families, by which children are born and nurtured and the human race continued, and by which society is created. Not to mention God's having created sex and intending its satisfaction in marriage. When marriage becomes the minority outcome in the church and in the world, we have a problem. And the problem in Western society generally is the falling-off of marriage for pagan and perverse reasons, so it is all the more important that the Church not fall into the ways of the world by ceasing to value marriage. The married state should be considered the norm. The state of lifelong or even long-term celibacy while young, embraced intentionally for God, should be the exception, though a valuable one.

But what about people who just aren't finding that marriage is "happening" for them, despite legitimate efforts? What about young men who keep getting turned down for dates, or who have had their hearts broken? What about young women whom no one asks out? What about people who are unattractive? What about a person who has some disability (e.g., alcoholism) that he needs to get taken care of before he is a legitimate candidate for marriage himself? Is it not cruel to assert that marriage is a norm and to promote it? Might it not hurt those people's feelings and make them feel un-valued?

One harsh but true fact is just this: Any recognition of normativity is (probably) accidentally going to hurt some people who are unable, through no fault of their own, to achieve the norm. If a society rightly values babies, infertile people are probably going to feel bad. If a society rightly values having a job and not living off of your parents, a disabled person who cannot get a job, or a man who is unemployed for some other reason that he can't help, is going to feel bad. And if a society or even a sub-society like the church values marriage, unmarried people may feel bad. That is a price we pay for having norms at all. It comes with the territory, and it's a bad idea to ditch the norms just to make sure nobody feels bad. For one thing, such feelings are actually helpful for distinguishing between those who are willfully avoiding the good thing for no good reason and those who truly can't help their situation. A culture or sub-culture that highly values children puts pressure on couples not to get married with the deliberate intention of never having children, for no particular reason, just because they don't want to. A culture's high value on work and self-support can help to put pressure on the man who is "failing to launch" and not really trying to be employed, living on his parents for no good reason. Putting a high value on marriage can motivate young people to seek marriage actively, which they (especially young men) should do if they are not specially called to singleness, rather than sitting around passively and then saying that it just didn't happen. In other words, social norms rightly create social guilt in those who willfully flout them. The sadness experienced by those who don't willfully flout them and are debarred through no fault of their own can then be dealt with separately, but in a culture that is trying to denormalize a particular valuable and normal thing, the higher priority should be hanging onto the norms. In short, hard cases make bad law.

Note, too, that you can't really decide whether or not an emphasis on some good thing is too much or exaggerated unless you have some idea of how valuable that thing actually is. Hence, the question of whether or not an emphasis by some group or individual on marriage is excessive is intimately bound up with the question of how much importance should be placed on marriage. The two questions can't be separated. It would be tacky for your uncle to say, "Hey, when are you going to get that plastic surgery to get your nose made perfectly straight?" That's because having a perfectly straight nose is not really very important, especially if one's nose is not visibly deformed. An uncle who said that would be weird. But an uncle who asks a 25-year-old nephew who shows no signs of doing so and doesn't seem to be debarred from marriage in any way, "Hey, when are you going to get married?" is reflecting the legitimate priorities of mankind throughout all of human history.

But okay, then, how should we help those who genuinely are single through no fault of their own, who are saddened by it, and who don't want to be made to feel that they lack value?

It seems to me that the first step is acknowledging that their sadness is legitimate and understandable--a real grief, in fact. I think Christians, and Western society generally, do fairly well at this for infertility. There's plenty of talk about the deep grief of infertility. But there is less talk about the deep sadness of singleness. One is forced to conclude that such grief is viewed as "drama queen" territory, as over-the-top, etc. But as one insightful Facebook friend pointed out, the two are bound up together. If grief over infertility is legitimate, it seems like grief over singleness must also be legitimate, since getting married is (morally) a prerequisite to having children. And as I pointed out in this post, if a man is planning to get married and wants to have children, then his future wife's biological clock is his own biological clock, even if he doesn't yet know who she is. There are still some men who, like Jim Elliot whom I quoted in that post, realize that and are pained by it as they continue to be unmarried. Certainly most women cannot avoid thinking about it.

The second step, in a Christian context, is promulgating a deep theology of suffering. If someone does not seem called to singleness by temperament or special task but nonetheless is single for some reason beyond his control, then he is suffering a sadness and a privation and has to learn the hard lesson of offering that pain up to Christ and living with loss. In the total set of lessons to be learned as part of a theology of suffering, the lesson that "Jesus is enough" is indeed one, but the phrase sounds like a cliche and hence is not wisely put front and center. Would you say to a man who had lost a limb, or a child, "Jesus is enough?" Probably not. In the course of his grief for his limb or his child, he does need to wrestle with and grasp the truth that we are ultimately made for God and seek union with God as our highest end. But the very profundity of that truth is degraded by applying it like a bandaid. Normally the man would walk through life with all of his limbs, with his wife, and with his children and would find union with God in part by way of these human goods, not by being deprived of them. When one of these normal human goods is either taken from a man or not vouchsafed to him in a timely way, finding more perfect union with God through the way of suffering and negation is extremely tough, and holding a Bible study in which we gather the single people and say earnestly to them, "You need to find your value in Jesus because he's enough, not in marriage" probably doesn't make much more sense as either a pastoral strategy or a theological approach than doing something similar with the infertile couples or the severely disabled.

Ironically, those most likely to be "helped" by being told that Jesus alone is enough are those who don't actually admit the strong normativity of marriage and who prefer (for whatever reason) to take no steps to that end themselves. They are likely to be soothed by being told that it's all those others promoting marriage who are wrong and idolatrous, tactless and hurtful, and that the young people are pursuing a higher and more spiritual way by letting the matter slide and getting on with single life while, at most, vaguely "waiting for the right person to come along." (Again, to be clear, as a complementarian I place more of an onus on males to be pursuing than on females, though there are also steps that females can take to show interest, etc., in a ladylike fashion.) The person who is really in most need of pastoral assistance because he (or she) is genuinely grieved by the single state may (I would guess) find the "Jesus is enough" pep talk cold comfort indeed.

Third, I think we should suggest to people in that situation that they be open, as befits a given context, about their desire to be married. No, I'm not recommending going on your Facebook status all the time and loudly bewailing your single state to all the world. But here are some recommendations: When there are people in your life who do reflect that legitimate priority on marriage (see the uncle example above) and who are close enough to you that they have a legitimate interest in knowing, be willing to communicate with them. If you're dating someone or even "sort of" dating someone, don't treat this as some dark secret. (The strange taboos of different generations are something of a mystery.) Tell your uncle, "Well, there is a young lady I'm getting to know and praying about. We'll see if anything comes of it." More painfully and vulnerably, if someone is "on your case" about not getting married and this is painful because there is some problem that has beset your efforts, instead of getting mad at this person who doesn't know the circumstances and developing a theory that "the church is idolatrous about marriage," be willing to sketch those circumstances for him: "Uncle Paul, I would really like to be married and have tried dating, but unfortunately the girls are not interested in me, and I'm not getting anywhere." If a hearty and tactless Uncle Paul then responds, "Nonsense! Why would any girl not want to date a handsome fellow like you?" then that really is Uncle Paul's problem. But if Uncle Paul is a reasonable, sensible, and minimally sensitive man, he'll express sympathy and offer to pray with you for God's will in the on-going situation. On the other hand, if you think that God is calling you to some difficult and dangerous path where you can't take a family, so you are intentionally remaining single, you can explain that as well. If you think none of this is Uncle Paul's business, fine and dandy. Maybe it isn't. But in that case be prepared to have Uncle Paul lack understanding of your situation, which probably has nothing to do with idolatry.

This recommendation of openness between the generations also helps (I'll admit) to "smoke out" those who just want to be left alone and who aren't actually seeking a spouse and having no luck. After all, if what you could in honesty tell Uncle Paul isn't that the girls are turning you down or that the guys aren't asking you out or even that you're recovering from a broken heart but rather something vague like "I guess I just haven't run into the right one yet" or "It just isn't the right time yet" or other anodyne and uninformative phrases, Uncle Paul may correctly conclude that you and he have quite different ideas about the value of marriage itself.

Again, let me emphasize that these thoughts arise not out of a lack of empathy for the unwillingly single but precisely from empathy with them. We live in a dysfunctional society, and nowhere more so than in the area of sex. The less marriage is considered a norm, the more situations we will have where people are discontentedly or unwillingly single, because it takes two suitable people, together, to get married! If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young women, the chaste, marriage-minded young men will have fewer options. If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young men, the chaste, marriage-minded young women will have fewer options. Hence the most practical way to help the unwillingly single is to promote both chastity and marriage-mindedness among the members of the opposite sex who are in contact with the unwillingly single. And the most spiritual way to help the unwillingly single is to admit their sadness, admit the problems of our Western society, admit their sense that the fallenness of the world is, one way or another, hitting them, and help them to find the help of God to comfort and sustain them along their way.

May God be with us all, the married and the unmarried, strengthen us, and bring us at last to his heavenly kingdom.

Related post here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hidden in Plain View is up for pre-order

I'm very excited to announce that Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts is available for pre-order from DeWard Publishing.

This is pre-order only. Actual release date is set for (good Lord willin' and the crik don't rise) March 1, 2017.

There is a free shipping option enabled on all pre-orders of this book, though it is not the default. Be sure to change the shipping at checkout from "priority" to "free shipping."

There were a couple of days during which the book was up for pre-order but free shipping was not yet enabled as an option. If you saw the book advertised on Facebook in the last two days and paid shipping on a pre-order, feel free to request a refund of that shipping payment using the "contact" form on the web site.

It's great to see the book coming closer to being released. I ask my Christian readers to pray that God will use it for his glory.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What I'm re-reading: The Heart of the Family

Just recently I have been re-reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family. This book has been so helpful to me spiritually that I wanted to blog about it, without thereby endorsing it as a literary work for my more literarily stringent readers. 

All quotations in what follows are from the hardcover edition by Coward-McCann (1953). The book is available in a reprint edition from Amazon here.

If you dislike any hint of preachiness in literature, you will dislike Goudge generally and this novel in particular. It is one of her most wordy, and occasionally the wordiness mars the dialogue in ways that even I (lenient though I am) cannot fully excuse.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a profound and painful Christian devotional book in the form of a story, this is the book for you. If you read it with attention and sensitivity, it will change you.

The Heart of the Family is the third and last of Goudge's novels about the Eliot family. The others, in order, are The Bird in the Tree and Pilgrim's Inn (alternative title The Herb of Grace). Set in Hampshire, England, between approximately 1939 and 1952, the Eliot novels are vintage Goudge, including stories about characters you care about combined with meditations on Christianity, marriage, love, and suffering.

I believe that The Heart of the Family can be read on its own, though some acquaintance with the earlier novels would probably be helpful. Pilgrim's Inn is, literarily, the strongest of the three.

The Heart of the Family does not have a great deal of plot, and it is part of the genius of Goudge to be able to do so much with so little plot. The movement of the story lies chiefly in the heart of the character Sebastian Weber, an Austrian (apparently not Jewish) survivor of a post-WWII Russian concentration camp. Formerly a famous concert pianist, Sebastian has suffered the loss of his career and entire family in the course of the war. His wife and several children were killed in the fire-bombing of Hamburg while on a visit there, and his last child died in his arms on a train car when they were taken up as refugees by the Russians and shipped somewhere or other under appalling conditions.

Only forty-eight years old and stranded as a refugee in America, Sebastian can no longer play the piano and suffers from heart failure, poverty, and mental illness (what we would refer to as PTSD). He is taken on for (unneeded) secretarial duties by David Eliot as an act of charity and comes to Damerosehay, the Eliot family home in England, at the beginning of the book. David Eliot is a few years younger than Sebastian, a successful, handsome stage actor, naturally egotistical and selfish but basically kindly, struggling mightily to follow the Christian way of commitment and renunciation despite his own faults. At the moment David is racked with guilt over having had a near-affair with a woman other than his wife while on the American Shakespeare tour on which he met and hired Sebastian. Sebastian knows that he should be grateful to David for taking him on as secretary and giving him a home, and he knows nothing of the semi-affair, but he is filled with envious hatred for David's position in life and anger over having to be beholden to a successful man. Since Goudge persistently brings something like ESP into her novels, there is another reason why Sebastian instinctively hates David, but that is kept as the "big reveal" of the novel, and I won't tell it here.

The movement of the novel consists chiefly in Sebastian's personal growth, recovery of religious faith, and recovery of the ability to love and to experience friendship, including friendship with David Eliot. Goudge also uses the book as an opportunity to give the reader "news"--both circumstantial and spiritual--about the other members of the Eliot family. These are all characters that Goudge readers would have met in the earlier two novels, with a few additions such as a fiance for Ben, David Eliot's 21-year-old cousin.

Into this slight frame Goudge packs quite amazing reflections on suffering, God, and the Christian discipline of "offering up" all things as prayer--pain and pleasure, worries, and struggles with sin. Goudge is simultaneously a sentimental novelist and a stark and uncompromising advocate of Christian mysticism based on a theology of suffering. The combination is unusual, to say the least. What one realizes as one reads and understands Goudge is that everything matters intensely, painfully. Even the things that are good matter in an almost painful way. Joy itself is interwoven with pain, but it is a joyful kind of pain. At the same time, nothing quite matters in the way that you thought it mattered. Personal enjoyment, for example, is both tremendously important--it can be transmuted into worship of God, the giver of all good things--and also unimportant, in the sense that one should be willing to give it up in order to know God more intimately.

With which wordy introduction, here are a few salient quotations:
When one was well, the next thing flowed in so easily and naturally but when one was tired to death it sent before it a wave of nervous apprehension. Would one be able to manage? Would one make a mess of it?...Engulfed in this fear Sally had taught herself to think of the next thing as though it were the last thing....If it were the last thing then it did not seem too hard to rally one's forces just once more....[W]hen you took the moment in your hands as selflessly as you were able, past and future were not so much destroyed as gathered into it in one perfect whole, and living for it was not destructive but creative. The moment was no longer the last thing but the one thing, and so nothing else mattered and one would not fail. (p. 65)
The cloudless sky was a cool clear green behind the Island, but overhead it deepened to a blue so glorious that it dazzled the eyes not so much by its brightness as its power. Strange that color could have such power. A lark had braved it and was singing up there, and two great swans passed overhead with a mighty beating of flame-touched wings. But the lark and the swans had the same power. The small bird, tossing almost unseen now above the music that fell like brightness from the air, had lifted the souls of men out of their mortal weariness more surely than any other musician since the world began. And the passing of the swans was as powerful as a rolling of drums. They were Apollo's swans, who according to Socrates sing and rejoice on the day of their death because they foresee the blessings of immortal life. Conquerors of the souls of men, conquerors of time and death; the place of the lark and the swans was in the depth of the blue that would still be there when the sky had let fall the stars "even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs." (p. 90) 

"How can good be lost if it is remembered?" asked Lucilla. "It can be pain to remember, I know, but it is one of those pains that are incumbent on us and the pain lessens if one does not shrink from the duty."
"How can it be a duty to remember?" asked Sebastian.
"I think it is all part of the purging," said Lucilla. "That hard deliberate remembering of good leaves no room for the remembrance of evil. That way we hasten the time. Don't you sometimes think, Mr. Weber, that one of the dreadful discoveries that we shall make in the life to come will be the extent to which we have put the clock back, and kept humanity upon the rack, by the mere unwilled thinking of idle moments?" (pp. 93-94)

This last phrase, "the unwilled thinking of idle moments," has been much on my mind lately. Lucilla Eliot (the great-grandmother and matriarch of the family) relates the problem of uncontrolled thoughts to the good or harm of mankind generally, but it is at least as relevant to the good or harm of the individual soul. How necessary it is for the Christian to be constantly on guard against the temptation to let one's thoughts wander--to hatred, vain regrets, the keeping of grudges, envy, resentment against God, going over painful thoughts profitlessly, or anything else that stands between the soul and Christ. And the Tempter is always ready to guide the course of "the unwilled thinking of idle moments" if we (or the Holy Ghost) do not keep it on the right track.

Yet whom did he hate? The actor who had given him the relief of catharsis or the employer who had been so thoughtful for his comfort? The father telling stories to his little girl or the gray ghost going up the stairs? Was it possible that he hated a mere ghost, the ghost who had been sitting in Banquo's chair when he looked across and saw it empty? A dead man, or a man whose eventual death was so certain that he could be already counted as dead. A man who was being done to death in David Eliot by some terrible adversary; terrible and glorious. [snip]
Abruptly he was awake once more, forcing himself to ask again, [hatred] of whom? and to give a truthful answer. Of a man who possessed all that he had once possessed, fame and the gifts of fame, wife and home and children, and who like himself might one day lose them. Of a man as extravagant, emotional, egocentric and arrogant for all the world to see as he had once been himself, and as deeply sinful in ways known only to himself and to his God, or even only to his God, as he was now. Of himself in fact. Of that dying self who in the eyes of the "terrible," purging the grain, was only the flying chaff. O God, the idiocy of jealousy, indignation, wrath and contention. (pp. 109, 112)

In the immediate context Goudge has quoted both the poem "Carrion Comfort" by G.M. Hopkins and the prayer from the Imitation of Christ that begins, "Take, O Lord, from our hearts all jealousy, indignation, wrath, and contention, and whatsoever may injure charity and lessen brotherly love," and these are wrapped into Sebastian's meditation on his own hatred of David. The idea that each of us is, and must be, a dying man, an egotistical self being done to death by God, is rightly terrifying and yet bracing as well. For that death is the gateway to eternal life, that life of the true self whom God created each of us to be.
Sebastian was beginning to admit that side by side with David's egotism there existed a certain selflessness. Or perhaps that was putting it too strongly. Perhaps it would be truer to say that David had headed his egotism for the loss of it, as a man shooting the rapids deliberately steers his boat for the sickening fall that is just ahead of him. (p. 212)
This is a place where Goudge, for all the demanding nature of her Christian vision, gives us something to grab onto. For if I cannot be selfless right now, I can at least try to "head my egotism for the loss of it" like a man steering a boat for the rapids.

Then there is this insightful bit of dialogue, on the pain that parents feel for the pain of their children and (in this case) grandchildren. Lucilla is speaking at first:

"...Don't you think that in each generation there is some special person who is a candle lighted for the rest?"
"Yes, I do think so," said Sebastian, but he could never speak the name of his son Josef.
"'Light me a candle,'" quoted Lucilla. "Maurice died in a burning of pain. He bore it and so did I. Something of the sort must happen to David and I am as willing as he will be. For Meg, though I shan't see it, I can't bear it and I'm not willing." Her soft old voice was suddenly torn off and died.
"You can and you will be," said Sebastian... (pp. 230-31)

Here is the character Hilary (Lucilla's oldest son) talking to Lucilla about substitution:
"...And then one day, with great difficulty, I suddenly put into practice and knew as truth what of course I had always known theoretically, that if pain is offered to God as prayer then pain and prayer are synonymous....The utterly abominable Thing that prevents your prayer becomes your prayer. And you know what prayer is, Mother. It's all of a piece, the prayer of a mystic or of a child, adoration or intercession, it's all the same thing; whether you feel it or not it is union with God in the deep places where the fountains are. Once you have managed the wrenching effort of substitution the abominable Thing, while remaining utterly detestable for yourself, becomes the channel of grace for others and so the dearest treasure that you have. [snip] [I]t's not just the way you look at it, it's a deliberate and costly action of the will. It can be a real wrenching of the soul....And it's the same with joy as with disaster and Things, lifted up with that same hard effort even the earthly joys are points of contact and have the freshness of eternity in them." (pp. 266-267)
This is at the heart of the idea of "offering up" that is woven throughout the book.

Here is David's meditation on the interaction of all things and people in God's creation:

As he closed the gate behind him a spray of winter honeysuckle, the dew still on it, touched his face. The sudden breath of scent took him by surprise, the coolness of the dew, the perfect trumpets of pale yellow flowers against the glossy green leaves. The fact of it suddenly filled his whole consciousness, blotting out all other facts....Yet the sight of it, the scent and feel, were the least part of its value, even as his body that saw and felt and breathed was no great thing. It had its reality of invisible good, as he his, but though it was a gift to him, he in his ignorance could not even guess at what it was.
His consciousness, that had narrowed to such a pin point, widened slowly to an awareness of an ocean surface of form and color and movement: the gray faces of men who suffered, the rosy faces of children, women's pearly fairness or blotched unsightliness, the grace of bodies and their degradation, flowers and birds' wings and the beautiful pelts of beasts, sunlight on the water and the flame of burning cities; all just an appearance of invisible good or evil that lived in the depths and could not be seen. Yet not in the still depths, only just below the surface where the flow of interchange was unresting and unceasing. One took and gave unendingly and could not know what one took or what one gave, because one did not know what one was, or who or what it was that gave. One was tossed upon this surface of appearance and could know nothing of the meaning of it, until one had passed through the fear and agony of its total loss. (pp. 284-285) 
Yet, contrary to what David thinks here, Goudge shows that David and Sebastian, and others in the story, actually do know something of the meaning of their interactions, of their takings and givings, even here in this life. And something of the meaning of creation. The mystery of those meanings should only keep us humble and ever open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for we may never know the significance of some act to which we are prompted, or some act that we refuse, for good or for evil.

I'll stop with that quotation. There is much more in the book. I recommend it if you are looking for something profound to read, something that will draw you closer to Christ, even if it is merely good literature and not truly great literature.

I don't know precisely what or whether I will write for Christmas this year, but in any event a blessed last week of Advent to my readers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Undesigned Coincidences in the OT: The Revolt of Libnah

Jehoram, King of Judah (mid-800s B.C.), was the first king in the divided kingdom to follow wholeheartedly after false gods. What do I mean by the divided kingdom? For those of you who aren't Bible geeks, a brief history: after Solomon died, his son Rehoboam refused to lower taxes (!), and this was the immediate cause of a rebellion that had probably been brewing for a long time. A general named Jeroboam took ten of the tribes of Israel under his rule. That came to be known as the Northern Kingdom. Only Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the descendant of David, and they became known as the Southern Kingdom or the Kingdom of Judah.

After that, until the rule of Jehoram, there was (according to the Bible) a pretty striking distinction between the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel, in that the former was ruled over by descendants of David and at least attempted to maintain the religion of the true God, while the latter went after false gods of one sort or another right from the outset of the divided kingdom period, beginning with the worship of the calves in the time of Jeroboam. But that distinction ended when Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, made a fatal error. He arranged a marriage for his son and heir, Jehoram, to Athaliah, the daughter of the wicked Jezebel, wife of Ahab, queen of Israel. (Jezebel was a pagan princess.) Led astray by his wife, Jehoram began to follow after the worship of Baal.

Here are a few verses on the matter from the book of 2 Kings, chapter 8, beginning at verse 16. (In case you're wondering about the reference here to Jehoshaphat, it looks like Jehoram began his own reign as co-regent with his father, a pretty common Ancient Near Eastern practice.)
Now in the fifth year of Joram the son of Ahab king of Israel, Jehoshaphat being then the king of Judah, Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat king of Judah became king. He was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab became his wife; and he did evil in the sight of the Lord. However, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David His servant, since He had promised him to give a lamp to him through his sons always....In his days Edom revolted from under the hand of Judah, and made a king over themselves.... So Edom revolted against Judah to this day. Then Libnah revolted at the same time.
We never do hear (that I know of) any highly specific reason why Edom revolts just then, though it is a general fact that the Edomites were vassals of the Kingdom of Judah (previously vassals of David and then Solomon) and were probably ready to revolt at the drop of a hat anyway.

But what about Libnah? Libnah was a city located within the lands of the tribe of Judah. It is mentioned in Joshua (more about that in a moment); it was won from the Canaanites when the land was first conquered. Some archeologists are convinced that they have located ancient Libnah in a dig at Tel Burna, about twelve miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Of course, many things are simply stated both in the historical books of the Bible and in other historical books, without any particular explanation, so it wouldn't be surprising if we never got any further explanation for the early revolt of Libnah, as opposed to some other Judean town, against Jehoram.

But as it happens, if we turn to Joshua, we do learn something relevant. In Joshua 21 the Levites demand their portion of the land of Israel in the form of cities. The tribe of Levi--the tribe of the priests--was not given separate lands like the other tribes, but they were supposed to be given cities. Thirteen cities were allotted to the Kohathite descendants of Aaron, an extremely important priestly lineage. Among these priestly cities (Joshua 21:13) was the city of Libnah. This fact is repeated in I Chronicles 6:57. (Chronicles summarizes much information from earlier historical books of the Old Testament.)

So a reason for the revolt of Libnah, specifically, suggests itself immediately: Libnah, being a city of the priests, was especially outraged by Jehoram's introduction of Baal worship in Judah and rose up against him.

J.J. Blunt (from whom I got this coincidence) does not leave the confirmations at that, however. He brings up a further confirmation that this was, indeed, the reason for the revolt of Libnah. Athaliah eventually (after the death of her husband and her son) sets herself up as Queen of Judah and murders (almost) all of her own grandsons in order to secure her throne (2 Kings 11). One grandson, one-year-old Joash, is saved from the massacre by his aunt and secretly raised by Jehoiada the priest, his uncle by marriage. When Joash is seven years old, Jehoiada leads a successful rebellion against Athaliah. The boy king Joash is proclaimed king, the wicked Athaliah killed, and the worship of Baal cast down.

This further history supports the proposition (not at all unlikely in itself) that the resistance to the worship of Baal and to Jehoram and Athaliah was centered in the priestly class. The revolt at Libnah, then, was a premature attempt that broke out when all was not yet ready. In particular, at that time there was not a candidate (even a boy king) for a godly ruler. Some years later (about fourteen years, by Blunt's reckoning), when the unpopular, usurping, and murderous Athaliah was sole ruler, the priestly rebellion foreshadowed at Libnah succeeded.

But see how indirect all of this is! The book of 2 Kings mentions only briefly the revolt of Libnah and gives no reason for it. For this one must turn to Joshua or to I Chronicles, either of which was definitely written by someone other than the author of 2 Kings. And the books of Kings are if anything a source for the books of Chronicles, not vice versa. Nor does the author of Kings assign any reason for the revolt of Libnah, though the author of 2 Chronicles does suggest a connection to Jehoram's idolatry.
Then Libnah revolted at the same time against [Jehoram's] rule, because he had forsaken the LORD God of his fathers. (2 Chron. 21:10)
But even here, and even though the chronicler (if we take the same person to have written or compiled all of Chronicles) has long before listed the cities of the sons of Aaron, including Libnah, he does not express that connection. Why should Libnah, particularly, be offended when Jehoram forsook the Lord God of his fathers? (Digression: This coincidence shows why it is good to have "another pair of eyes" on the details of the argument. Blunt erroneously states [p. 203] that the readers of both Kings and Chronicles would have had no way of knowing anything further about Libnah, but in fact way back in I Chronicles 6 the division of the cities is listed. Even if we were just looking at Chronicles, however, this is extremely indirect, and all the more so since 2 Chronicles 21 does not say what Jehoram's forsaking God has to do with the rebellion of Libnah. Certainly the fact that both parts of the coincidence are included far apart in Chronicles does nothing to weaken the argument from this coincidence for the historicity of Kings.)

As a confirmation of the historicity of the books of Kings, this is the kind of subtle connection that those of us who study undesigned coincidences love. The author of Kings just says that Libnah revolted at the same time as Edom. Yet when one looks into the more detailed history of the land, one finds an extremely plausible explanation which also fits beautifully with the further history of the devotion of the priests to the true God and their eventual rebellion against Athaliah.

Says Blunt,
This is the explanation of the revolt of Libnah. Yet, satisfactory as it is, when we are once fairly in possession of it, the explanation is anything but obvious. Libnah, it is said, revolts, but that revolt is not expressly coupled with the introduction of Baal into the country as a god...nor is any reason alleged why Libnah should feel particularly alive to the ignominy and shame of such an act; for where Libnah was, or what it was, or whereof its inhabitants consisted, are things unknown to the readers of Kings..., and would continue unknown, were they not to take advantage of a hint or two in the Book of Joshua. (p. 203)
Concerning the overthrow of Athaliah, Blunt argues,
But will any man say that the sacred historian [the author of 2 Kings] so ordered his materials, that such incidents as these which I have named should successively turn up--that he guided his hands in all this wittingly--that he let fall, with consummate artifice, first a brief and incidental notice (a mere parenthesis) of the revolt of a single town, suppressing meanwhile all mention of its peculiar constitution and character, though such as prepared it above others for revolt--that then, after abandoning not only Libnah, but the subject of Judah in general, and applying himself [for several chapters] to the affairs of Israel in their turn, he should finally revert to his former topic, or rather a kindred one, and lay before us the history of a general revolt, organized by the Priests; and all in the forlorn hope that the uniform working of the same principle of disaffection in the same party, and for the same cause, in two detached instances, would not pass unobserved; but that such consistency would be detected, and put down to the credit of the narrative at large? This surely is a degree of refinement much beyond belief. (p. 205)
 I couldn't have said it better myself.

Crossposted at What's Wrong With the World

Friday, November 25, 2016

Bannon, etc.

As mentioned in the previous post, Facebook is now the place where I put in most of my blogging-type energy. This means that many of my FB "friends" and many of their "friends" already know in excruciating detail and at great length what I think of the Steve Bannon flap, while anybody who knows my ideas on political topics only through Extra Thoughts will have to guess. It also means that by this time I'm practically weary of the subject and hate to say it all over again.

So I won't say it all over again, just most of it. What I have to say here may not come as much of a surprise to those who know what I think of the alt-right.

Steve Bannon, as near as I can gather, is an enabler of the alt-right, and knowingly so. This doesn't mean that he is personally racist or anti-semitic. If I had to bet I would bet that those aren't amongst his (strong) ideological, personal commitments. However, he is entirely reckless about both racism and anti-semitism inasmuch as he has been willing, knowingly and deliberately, to give (as he said himself) a "platform" to the alt-right and to let Breitbart be turned into a gateway drug for the alt-right.

In fact, though he has just this past weekend stated that he has "zero tolerance" for racism, this is patently and even laughably untrue. To give just one example, over a year ago Alex Marlow said that he and Steve Bannon were thinking of giving Breitbart writer Katie McHugh a weekly column after reviewing some extremely racially "edgy" anti-Mexican tweets of hers, including one that referred to Mexicans' "retard dysfunction," to which a liberal news organization had drawn their attention. This sort of insouciant doubling down is as far as possible from "zero tolerance" and is, in fact, quite typical of alt-right modus operandi.

It is not that Breitbart is anything like as nasty a site as a hard-line alt-right site (at least, if one ignores the comboxes at Breitbart). But it is a roadway and a platform for fellow travelers (such as the despicable Milo) and a breeding ground for a variety of nasty alt-right attitudes and ideas. It was Breitbart that published this, to my mind damningly laudatory, "guide" to the alt-right. The article normalizes "human biodiversity theory" and even the allegedly humorous use of neo-Nazi imagery, as long as (you know) it isn't done with real hatred in one's heart. Presumably we are to depend upon Milo and co. to guide us as to which swastikas are tweeted with real hatred and which ones are done by the "joyful" and "fun" "meme team." The article attempts to make the alt-right sound sexy, brilliant, amusing, and cool.

The trouble is that people have short attention spans, and so all that the left can shout is that Bannon himself is personally an anti-semite, which is not strongly supported and even has some evidence against it. At that point those on the right who want to believe that Trump is going to do some good simply stop listening, thinking that this is another case where the left is smearing a good man. In all of this, the complex danger that the ruthless and unscrupulous Steve Bannon actually poses to conservatism goes by the boards, and we get repeated, shallow whitewashes at conservative publications, like this one, for example, by John Zmirak, which makes no attempt to address legitimate concerns about both Bannon and neo-nationalism. (For more on what Zmirak actually knows and is pushing under the rug, see the discussion below.)

The appointment of Bannon has already done harm to conservatism, because the debate over Bannon has motivated people to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics and to separate themselves from reality.

Hardcore alt-right denialism

--The most extreme example of the proposition that the alt-right literally does not exist that I have seen showed up on Facebook on Thanksgiving Day: Someone on a FB friend's wall seriously floated the conspiracy theory that Richard Spencer and his group of Nazi-saluting kookballs are a hoax, paid for by George Soros to make conservatism look bad. Pointing out that he has a history and a web site and has been around for years did not elicit a mea culpa.

--A similar view I've seen expressed or implied is the proposition that there is no alt-right movement at all and that the word was invented by the left-wing news to smear conservatives. This is often accompanied by a proud display of ignorance as argument: "Well, I've never heard of it before this week!" Well, that's a knockdown argument. It does not seem to dawn on the one making this claim that, in the age of the Internet, a great many sociological movements could be going on their merry way, involving thousands of people, without his ever having heard of them. One of course tries to refute this sort of nonsense by naming some sites (which I would have thought could be found quickly enough using Google): VDare, American Renaissance, Vox Day, Radix Journal, and others have obviously existed a lot longer than this week. For this I've occasionally gotten an, "Okay, thanks, I'll check it out" (that's a triumphant moment for me, because at least it represents a move in the right direction) but have never had anyone come back and say, "I was wrong. This really is a movement, and it's been around for a while. I just didn't happen to know about it before."

Softcore alt-right denialism

--The proposition that "the alt-right" is so incredibly diffuse and diverse a set of people and includes so many different sub-groups and is so unofficial and Internet-y that it should not be thought of as a movement at all and (this is crucial) no ideas, especially no bad ideas, should be attributed to it. Nothing is a movement, apparently, without membership cards, a mailing address, peer-reviewed journals to which one can make footnotes, and elected officials.

--If one sends the doubter to some actual alt-right site, such as VDare or Vox Day, and he sees bad stuff there that is clearly accepted as the core ideas of a movement, he may shift to saying that almost nobody could possibly be influenced by or believe this stuff just because it is so bad and crazy. A version of this actually said to me was, "Isn't that guy some kind of Nazi? Well, who listens to him?" The fact that (as comboxes show) apparently quite a number of people do listen to "this guy" does not move the doubter.


--If one finally convinces a person that yes, this is real, yes, there really are these sites, yes, they've been around for a long time, no, this isn't just a dream in the fevered brain of the left-wing media, and yes, this movement does really coalesce around these various really bad ideas, the next move will often be to say that they can't really do any harm. Usually this takes the form of saying that there can't be all that many alt-rightists, so why talk about them at all or worry about them? Sometimes it takes the form of saying that they are "mostly on the Internet" or are probably mostly youthful losers "living in their parents' basements," so they can't really hurt anybody.

At this point, of course, one should bring up David French , Bethany Mandel, Erick Erickson, and the other journalists French names who have received vile harassment and death threats. One should also mention that SWAT-ing and doxing can be carried out remotely. And apparently some enraged Trump supporters got out of their parents' basements and ended up on Never Trumper Erick Erickson's lawn. And it doesn't bloody matter if they aren't there anymore right now. (I was actually asked, as if to gauge whether the movement is really dangerous, if they're still on his lawn.) How would you like it if they showed up on your lawn?? Erickson shouldn't have to live in a state of literally permanent siege for the rest of his life for ostrich-headed conservatives to admit that we have a problem.

I want to say a word here about threats. The Internet, Twitter in particular, has done something extremely bad to our common life: It has made us blasé about threats. There is a reason why threats are not protected by the First Amendment and are, in fact, illegal. But given that law enforcement would be overwhelmed if it tried to investigate every death threat or rape threat conveyed by Twitter and e-mail as well as those conveyed by phone, text, physical letter, etc., a lot has to go uninvestigated. Law enforcement has to triage. We have to try to guess which threats are likely to result in action. But it shouldn't be that way. Nobody should have to play Russian roulette with his and his family's safety by guessing whether a death threat or a rape threat is "credible" or "serious." In a sense, they are all serious, and all the people who make all of them would be behind bars if things were as they should be.

It is truly sad to see conservatives starting to use phrases like "on the Internet" to downplay the danger and harm caused by threatening and vile harassment. The fact that an electronic means was used to convey the threats and vile harassment that these men and women have received doesn't change the semantic content of the communication. "These people are mostly on the Internet" makes it sound like they literally live in another dimension of reality, as opposed to "These people used a vast network of computers anonymously to convey their evil, threatening, and cowardly communications."

The saying (attributed to Elie Wiesel) goes that, if a man tells you he wants to kill you, you should believe him. That shouldn't have a little asterisk next to it that goes to a footnote that says, "Unless he says it on the Internet. Then he's probably just some loser in his parents' basement, and you shouldn't worry about it."

Whitewashing by redefinition

--This is what Bannon himself is doing directly, and others are joining him. Bannon is now openly redefining the term "alt-right," and here is what he says is his personal meaning for it. "Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment."

Even if there were a stable form of being "very nationalist" and "terribly anti-establishment" somewhere in America that was not racist and harassing, the alt-right ain't it. You can't just redefine a term for an existing social movement in order not to have to apologize for giving a platform. (See Ben Shapiro on the redefinition move here.)

Moreover, it has proven incredibly difficult in the U.S. for any group to be very nationalist and very anti-establishment and very anti-globalist while having no problem whatsoever with some form of racialism. Even those who have tried to split those particular hairs have always had to be eternally vigilant--both concerning themselves and concerning their readers and followers. I know whereof I speak, having been for several years a reader and sometimes commenting at the site of the late Lawrence Auster, View from the Right. Eventually I took it off my sidebar for good and sufficient reason. Not that I didn't actually like and even pray for Auster. I also knew that he was genuinely trying to create a forum in which racial issues could be frankly discussed from what might be considered a "far right" viewpoint, without actual racial animus. But the problems proved nearly insuperable, and I decided that the site was actually having a bad effect upon me even as a somewhat detached reader.

The potential problems are not just with active racial animus but also with openness to pseudo-scientific biological racial theories as well as unhealthy obsession with racially motivated crime. For anyone who thinks that there is a great gulf between the ideas of today's alt-right and the ideas of yesterday's paleoconservatism, this speech by the paleoconservative Paul Gottfried is instructive. Gottfried has some claim to have coined the phrase "alternative right." In a speech in 2008 he explicitly dubs VDare and Takimag as the future of the paleoconservative ("alternative right") movement that he founded! He also explicitly bemoans any move toward racial egalitarian ideas in the movement and urges the movement to keep hold of its racialist past:

They [older paleoconservatives] were also preoccupied with sociobiology, a discipline or way of thinking that had influenced them deeply. Today the paleo camp looks markedly different as well as much older, and it shows little interest in the cognitive, hereditary preconditions for intellectual and cultural achievements. And the despair about American society among paleos may be pushing some of them toward the liberal immigrationist camp, providing they’re not already there. Others of this group have become so terrified by those on their left that they pretend not to notice the stark fact of human cognitive disparities. This quest for innocuousness sometimes takes the form of seminars on educational problems centering on endless sermons about values and featuring rotating lists of edifying books. Presumably everyone would perform up to speed if he/she could avail himself/herself of the proper cultural tools. The fact that not everyone enjoys the same genetic precondition for learning is irrelevant for this politically motivated experiment in wishful thinking.
The main difference, then, between Gottfried's preferred "sociobiology" and today's alt-right is that Gottfried was genteel and presumably wouldn't have wanted anyone harassed with crude insults or threatened. But it's not as though the older paleoconservative movement, as envisaged by Gottfried and co., had no problems whatsoever with racialist ideas!

Bizarrely, John Zmirak himself must know this, for he himself engaged in a back-and-forth with Paul Gottfried on this very subject of race in that very year (2008). Zmirak wrote in Takimag, and Gottfried eventually responded (to Zmirak, inter alia) in none other than American Renaissance, a blatantly racialist publication, where Gottfried praised the racialist leader of the alt-right, Jared Taylor! Gottfried specifically insisted, in response to and disagreement with Zmirak, that blacks are genetically deficient in their "capacity to produce culture, science, and civility..." Are these the "Jacksonian nationalists" Zmirak wants everybody to keep calm and hang out with? Zmirak even recounted a few months ago that he once got trapped by attending a paleocon conference with an openly white nationalist speaker. He knows the dangers and the lack of clear demarcation lines full-well, and has known them for years, yet in this most recent piece he writes as if no such problem exists!

The association among nationalism, anti-globalism, and racialism is perhaps something of an historic accident in the U.S., but it is a sociological fact nonetheless, and to pretend otherwise is to be wildly irresponsible. There is not some bright line, some hard and fast sociological distinction, between those groups of people who are "very nationalist" and those who are at least in danger of if not openly flirting with racialism. For that very reason anyone who is going to be an immigration hawk (as in fact I generally am myself) or who is going to use "very anti-globalist" language, much less "nationalist" language (as opposed to patriotic language, which is not the same thing) needs to be on guard rather than dismissive of these concerns.

Such a purported distinction coming from Bannon, of all people, is especially a joke, since he himself has scarcely made an effort to make any such distinction in practice. (See the story about Katie McHugh, above.)

Bannon's appointment is, as the Zmirak article itself illustrates, going to increase this type of whitewashing by redefinition and by pretending that hard and fast distinctions exist where they do not. This encourages conservatives to be reckless precisely where they should be careful.

Alt-right anti-establishmentarianism and harassment

Finally, I want to discuss further the way that Bannon's association with the alt-right harms conservatism through the alt-right's ideas about harassment, aside from contentful ideas about race, etc. This, again, is difficult for people to grasp who are focused entirely on a question like, "Is Steve Bannon a racist/anti-semite?" The greater problem is that he's ruthless and vindictive and hates many ordinary conservative politicians and pundits. It is here that his affinity to the alt-right is greatest--in methodology and deliberately cultivated hatred for anyone on the conservative side deemed "establishment." This, I think, explains his liking for the alt-right and his wanting to normalize and continue to associate with it. Both Bannon and his alt-right associates hate conservatives who aren't as edgy as they are, conservatives who have been defined as enemies, Never Trump conservatives, and allegedly "establishment" conservatives (even those who were previously Tea Party candidates).

This article is especially illuminating in this regard. Bannon reveals himself here to be an ideologue in his own right and, simultaneously, to care deeply about tearing down the existing Republican party as an end in itself. This destructive tendency is typical of the alt-right. I had one alt-right commentator at W4 tell me that the booing of Ted Cruz at the RNC was an accomplishment of their movement! In other words, they care far more about destroying those they have dubbed enemies than about positively advancing conservative causes or candidates, even the most brilliant and valuable (like Cruz). Bannon may well (for all I know) have started out with a legislative agenda for the Tea Party that I would have at least partly agreed with. But it looks like he decided he needed to attack the Republican establishment as a means to the end of advancing that agenda (which may have had some strategic truth to it) and eventually came to a) have an extremely expansive concept of "the establishment" and b) consider tearing down this widely defined "establishment" as a goal in and of itself. This latter approach is deeply wrong and deeply disturbing.

Indeed, the greatest practical danger (aside from the ideological dangers) that Bannon poses right now to conservatism is that he will influence Trump away from cooperating with Paul Ryan and the Republicans in the Senate ("establishment") to pass conservative legislation.

Beyond that, Bannon's praise for what he calls being "terribly anti-establishment" is dangerous to the soul of conservatism. Consider the way that the alt-right carries out its project of being "terribly anti-establishment." The cases of David French and Erick Erickson are at the top of the list here, but now I'm going to talk about Ben Shapiro, because he is connected to Breitbart and Bannon: After Ben Shapiro left Breitbart and began criticizing it, he received a lot of vicious anti-semitic and racial harassment. This included a vile tweet from Breitbart's Milo upon the birth of Shapiro's son. That tweet, stating that Shapiro's son was "half-black," alluded to the meaning of the disgusting insult that the alt-right has invented for conservatives they hate. Nonetheless, camp followers of the alt-right will sometimes try to tell you that that isn't the meaning of the insulting term and that there isn't anything wrong with the term. De Nile isn't just a river in Egypt. A camp follower of the alt-right recently told me on Facebook that Milo has never said anything racist (!), and then, after I pointed out this example, began angrily fuming that the only people who object to what Milo says are those who are oversensitive and manipulated by the media. Never mind the fact that I had just refuted his false claim. This is the corruption of conservatism: Vileness isn't vileness. Racist abuse isn't racist abuse.

When Bannon was interviewed at the Republican National Convention, after this abuse of Shapiro had been publicized, he referred to Shapiro as "a whiner." This was the same interview in which he complacently stated that he had made Breitbart a platform for the alt-right. The criticism of Shapiro as a "whiner" (presumably for objecting to the anti-semitic abuse he received) is revealing. This is classic alt-right behavior: When a hated, non-alt-right conservative (or an "SJW") receives abuse and has the gall to mention it, revile him as a whiner, as "playing the victim," etc. Insinuate that either he deserved what he got (because reasons) or that (because reasons) he shouldn't talk about it. That's "whining." Or say both. This same behavior can be seen in other anti-establishmentarians (neo-reactionaries, etc.) who say things such as, "I have little sympathy for David French," blaming French and the others for having the gall to write political commentary under their own names, because abuse and threats are just expected in that case. Actually, no, they aren't. And are we now going to withhold sympathy from anyone who writes political commentary under his own name as being at fault for any subsequent abuse he and his family receive? Or is appalling callousness and victim-blaming reserved for those we disagree with? This "I have no sympathy" attitude both reveals and eggs on the wicked spirit of the bully. Sneer at people who complain about abuse. Portray them as weaklings. Verbally kick them while they're down. Blame the victim. Breitbart published a piece along exactly the same lines, saying that Shapiro was "playing the victim," mocking him, and even containing the breath-taking falsehood, "No one hates Jewish people." Bannon didn't personally write that piece (I assume). But it fits perfectly with his personal, ruthless dismissal of Shapiro as "a whiner."

This bullying, vindictive spirit, this sneering normalization of abuse, is a grave danger to conservatism. It would be entirely possible for Bannon not to harbor personal racism or anti-semitism while being (as he clearly is in the case of Shapiro) a bully who doesn't give a damn about racist and anti-semitic abuse so long as it is directed at those he deems his enemies, the "establishment," that which he wants to burn down in his "Leninist" project. That destructiveness is the spirit of the alt-right (and for that matter, the spirit of neo-reaction), and Bannon appears to have adopted it to the hilt.

The Machiavellians among the alt-right may realize that various forms of alt-right denialism, even the most extreme, work to their advantage. They can do whatever they want, in plain view, and the extreme denialists will still conclude that there's nothing to see here. ("I never heard of it before this week. Probably just an invention of the left.") Moreover, the move within a given person from outright denialism to softcore denialism to downplaying to whitewashing is also to their advantage when it occurs. The end state is a person who thinks in some vague way, "The alt-right isn't so bad after all" or "There is good in the alt-right, and we should appreciate it" or "I guess I'm alt-right" and is thus ripe for being further drawn in and becoming a camp follower of the movement itself. Ben Shapiro talks about this strategy helpfully here. And the process can be begun at one time and picked back up and continued later on. Someone who got as far as, "It's just some losers in their parents' basement being tough on the Internet" or "Who listens to Nazis anyway?" on one day may, if sufficiently motivated (motivated to disagree with the media, motivated to defend Trump and/or Bannon and/or Milo), come back another day and glom onto the dubious "distinction" between the bad, racist alt-right and the allegedly interesting and harmless "nationalist, anti-globalist" alt-right. Or may move to, "Well, people should know better than to criticize the alt-right using their own names. I have no sympathy for them. They should stop whining."

Of course, a given person may settle into one of the states I have described here and never move to another, but that is still a problem, because it represents a disconnection from reality in one way or another.

How many conservatives and erstwhile conservatives will become inured to, shrug off, and even support harassment and abuse of the c---s, the Never Trumpers, and the "establishment"? How many will support evil-doing toward leftists? How many more will turn a blind eye to support for harassment among their fellow conservatives or lend a platform for it? And how much will the divisive appointment of Bannon, and Bannon's influence on Trump, interrupt any opportunity that a Republican presidency would otherwise present for passing conservative legislation? Some of these harms have already begun, and I have witnessed them. Remember when the Never Trumpers said that the greatest harm of a Trump win lay in the damage it would do to conservatives themselves? He isn't even president yet, and it is already happening. How far all of this will go as time goes on remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, if the sunshine treatment will help, I'm quite willing to cooperate in shining the light.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day, 2016

This year the only Thanksgiving post I "wrote" was actually a reprise. Over at W4 I have re-posted this from Passion Sunday on the connection between the death of Jesus Christ and our earthly blessings.

This has been a rough year for Extra Thoughts in several ways. For one thing, Facebook has consumed virtually all of the time that I would otherwise have spent blogging. Over on Facebook I am constantly pouring out content, often on other people's "walls" and in response to their "friends." It's much like debating in blog comboxes, only it isn't readily available to the public at large, unless the post in question is public. Maybe that's just as well sometimes!

For another thing, the political scene has been extremely grim, and especially grim in the divisions among conservatives. This has been depressing. Sometimes it has meant that I'm too busy involved in the hurly burly of these divisions on social media (see previous point) to post here. Sometimes it has meant that I'm too "down" to want to take the energy to post here about the political topics that are occupying not only much of my mind but much of the mental energy of my friends as well.

Nor does it seem that that is going to change very much post-election. Now that Donald Trump has won the election, the beat goes on with debates among conservatives about his appointees, his advisers, and their associates and opinions. I don't imagine that Extra Thoughts will remain untouched by these debates; in fact, I'm sure it won't. But sometimes it may just be quiet altogether for a while.

Meanwhile, as usual, it will remain eclectic. In between political posts, I expect to put up or cross-post devotional thoughts, hymn meditations, and apologetics. It just will (probably) be slower, or sometimes slower, or more inconsistently paced, than it used to be.

As has been true year after year since I began this personal blog, I am blessed far beyond my deserts and far beyond my capacity for proper gratitude. In heaven I hope to be capable of sustaining and pouring forth the full measure of gratitude owed for all the mercies of heaven, in things both small and great.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

First Old Testament undesigned coincidence post--Hezekiah's treasure chamber

First of all, update on my forthcoming book Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.

DeWard Publishing is gathering "blurbs" right now, having sent out advance reading copies. I'm doing a last read through for typos or other errors and have found a handful. I've been having a nice, peaceful, nerdy time indexing the book. It is going to have three indices (I know they are usually called indexes, but I kinda like "indices")--a Scripture reference index, an index of authors and modern names, and a subject index.

Right now the hope is for a spring release, with "spring" somewhat ambiguous, depending on how quickly we get endorsements. I hope that before too long the book will be available for pre-order on DeWard's site.

Meanwhile, I have been carefully re-reading John James Blunt's Old Testament section in Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings Both of the Old and the New Testament. I got started doing this both because it seemed intrinsically interesting and also partly because I'm so ornery. I have a good friend who, every time the name of Blunt comes up in conversation, will pause to say that he thinks the OT coincidences are not as good as the NT coincidences.

Now, granted, the OT coincidences are less densely packed than the NT coincidences, and they often lack the interesting characteristic of involving multiple accounts of the same event. Occasionally one does get that characteristic when the same incident is told both in Chronicles and in Kings. But for the most part, the OT coincidences are of different kinds. They may concern facts or social conditions rather than specific events, for example. The one I will be discussing in this post does involve several different books that tell about events surrounding the same event--namely, Sennacherib's attack upon Jerusalem and King Hezekiah's sickness and recovery.

Anyway, I went through the OT sections of Blunt and made notes about many of the coincidences that I thought worthwhile, and I'm excited to start gradually blogging about these.

For this coincidence, there is some ambiguity as to which books are involved in it and how. Blunt takes the account of Hezekiah's showing his treasure house to Babylonian envoys from Isaiah 39 and puts it in the prophecy section of his book. However, the same passage occurs almost word for word, with very little indication of independence (in that passage) in 2 Kings 20:12ff. One of the only differences is a variant in the name of the king of Babylon, but in the main these two accounts really do look literarily dependent somehow. How, exactly, they are dependent depends on numerous other questions, such as when 2 Kings was written and when Isaiah was written.

However, happily, even if we regard Isaiah/2 Kings to lie on one side of the coincidence, the other part of the puzzle occurs in 2 Chronicles, which is definitely by a different author than 2 Kings (by all accounts) and which does not have this identical passage at all, though it does allude in quite different terms and much more briefly to the visit of the Babylonian envoys.

What all of this means is that this coincidence may not be able to play one role that Blunt wanted to assign to it--namely, supporting the earliness of the book of Isaiah.

The coincidence does, however, tend to support the historicity of the events, and it goes like this:

In both Isaiah and 2 Kings we are told, after the account of Hezekiah's sickness and recovery and the prophecies and sign attending it (Isaiah 38, 2 Kings 20:1-11), that envoys came from Babylon bringing letters and a present from the king of Babylon to King Hezekiah to congratulate him on his recovery. Hezekiah shows them his treasure house, "the silver and the gold and the spices and the precious oil and the house of his armor and all that was found in his treasuries." Isaiah is not amused. He chides the king for this vain display and prophesies that Hezekiah's offspring will be carried off captive to Babylon. At this time (circa 700 B.C.), Babylon would not have been considered a danger. As we shall see, Assyria was the great danger to Hezekiah. Hezekiah's response to this dire prophecy is rather selfish and yet all too human: He is just relieved that he can infer that there will be peace (at least from Babylon) in his own time.

Both the account in Isaiah and that in 2 Kings imply that Hezekiah's sickness occurred at the time of the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib and before the issue of that invasion was decided, although the actual account of his illness comes in the books just after the account of the destruction of Sennacherib--a flashback. Both say that, when Isaiah assured Hezekiah that he would live, he also promised that God would deliver the city from the Assyrians (2 Kings 20:6, Isaiah 38:6). So the envoys apparently came after Hezekiah recovered, after the danger from Assyria was averted, and after word had gotten back to Babylon of Hezekiah's sickness and recovery.

Now here is an interesting thing. We have an apparent contradiction at first, because in 2 Kings 18:13-16 the chronicler says that Hezekiah attempted to buy off Sennacherib with a tribute. It's unclear whether Sennacherib knew that he would try to take Jerusalem anyway and was being devious all along or whether he changed his mind after taking the tribute. But it was a very heavy one in any event:
So the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.
So here, either during Hezekiah's sickness or at least around the time of that sickness, his treasury is completely empty to try to satisfy the voracious appetite of Sennacherib. Hezekiah is reduced to scraping the gold from the doors and doorposts of the Temple. To no avail, as the invasion continues.

How, then, could he have had a full treasure house not long after, when he received envoys from Babylon who came to congratulate him on his recovery? A treasure house so full that he shows it to them with much pride?

The point about the extorted tribute is not found in Isaiah, and neither Isaiah nor 2 Kings (both of which tell of the envoys' visit) explains this apparent discrepancy. Although the problem arises in 2 Kings (since 2 Kings tells of the tribute), that chronicler doesn't bother to explain how the treasure house was replenished.

The explanation is found in 2 Chronicles. There, after the story of the destruction of Sennacherib's forces (found in all three books, in near-identical wording in Isaiah and 2 Kings but in different terminology in Chronicles), there is this unique verse:
And many were bringing gifts to the Lord at Jerusalem and choice presents to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations thereafter. (2 Chronicles 32:23)
This, then, solves the apparent discrepancy. After word got out of the salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib (the Bible says by the miraculous intervention of the angel of the Lord), the nations around thought it would be a good idea to send gifts to Hezekiah the king of Judah. The "many" may also refer to Jews in other parts of Judah who were sending gifts both to the Lord and to Hezekiah. Thus, by the time that the Babylonians heard of his recovery and decided to send a gift and congratulatory letter of their own, he had a treasure house full of goodies to show them. And we can guess that he was perhaps all the more eager to do so because of the contrast between this state of wealth and his previous financial and military humiliation.

The historian of 2 Chronicles doesn't mention the humiliating tribute. The historian of 2 Kings mentions the tribute and the later fullness of the treasure house but not the gifts from other nations that account for its replenishing. The author of Isaiah does not tell of the tribute nor of the gifts but does tell of the vain display of the treasures.

There is one other rather interesting verse in 2 Chronicles concerning the envoys, of which 2 Chronicles gives no full account:
Even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land, God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart. (2 Chronicles 27:31)
It is unclear whether "the wonder that had happened in the land" is meant to refer to the death of the armies of Sennacherib or the sign (described in 2 Kings and Isaiah as the sun's shadow moving backwards) given to Hezekiah that he would recover. I would be inclined to guess the former, but the author of 2 Chronicles is cryptic on this point.

The facts that fit together here in the way that marks an undesigned coincidence are a) the emptying of Hezekiah's treasury to try to stave off the Assyrians, b) the subsequent fullness of the treasury when he shows it to the envoys and is rebuked by Isaiah, and c) in between these, the preservation of Jerusalem followed by celebratory and/or congratulatory gifts sent to Jerusalem.

This is a very nice coincidence that connects and confirms 2 Kings (with Isaiah) and 2 Chronicles. Blunt would not want me to omit that the central event that turns things around from despair and an empty treasury to an overflowing treasury is a miracle--the destruction of Assyrian army by God.

It would be even more satisfying if the account of the full treasure house were unique to Isaiah, showing some sort of unique access by the author of Isaiah to events in the court of Hezekiah. Of course, if we could date the writing of Isaiah with confidence prior to the end of 2 Kings, then Isaiah would be earlier and hence not based on 2 Kings. But at this point I'm not prepared to wade into the waters of the precise dating of the book of Isaiah. Regardless, someone seems to have known about the visit of the envoys, and I'll leave it at that.

I hope to put up more posts, probably jumping around the OT as the whim takes me, in subsequent weeks and months.

Friday, November 04, 2016

This heraldic season

Why is autumn so often thought to be quiescent and patient? The colors alone refute that characterization.

Autumn is shouting and heraldic. The red, gold, and blue go up to the heavens like a cry of exultation.

Nor does the shout of autumn go only upward, from earth to heaven. It comes down as well, from heaven to earth.

The blue of the sky at its zenith breaks upon the senses like a thunderclap. The shockingly red tree stands up and laughs heartily, like a joyous giant, at the idea that he is nothing but a felicitous arrangement of carbon atoms. For in this atmosphere of bedazzlement reductionism cannot live long.

The flaming leaves come down in a whirl, calling out, "A message! A message!" And the shuffling of feet through the fallen rondels of gold repeats the same in a whisper: "A message! A message!"

For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Who shall change our vile body

This was part of the epistle reading for today at church, from Philippians 3:

17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

Just above that, the Apostle Paul has warned the Philippians against those who preach that Gentiles must be circumcised. But he doesn't sound too worried. The Philippians, unlike the Galatians, don't seem to have been inclined to follow that particular teaching.

This passage makes me think that the more I read Paul, the more I think of the "old perspective" on Paul. I gather one of the points of the "new perspective" is to avoid all this talk of "going to heaven" and talk instead about "covenant relationship." Well, there's nothing wrong with covenant relationship, but Paul was all about going to heaven, and never more so than in Philippians. In fact, one of his emphases here is that the false teachers he is warning against are too focused on this world; he wants his followers to be thinking more of the next world, the afterlife, and the second coming of Jesus.

Not that this is at all a gnostic, anti-physical emphasis. On the contrary, part of what Paul is emphasizing is that in the end we will have new bodies, like Jesus' glorious resurrection body. The phrase "vile body" is translated in more modern versions by phrases such as "lowly body" and "body of our humble state."

I don't know what all the things were that the Apostle Paul had in mind when he thought of our "vile body" or our "lowly body," but it occurs to me that one of the annoying things about being in this earthly state is the sense that one is constantly distracted and unsure precisely what one should be doing. The times when one transcends this, the times of pure focus, are (I believe) precursors of the heavenly state. So athletes and musicians when they are "in the groove" or a man sunk in reading a great book, feeling that he is really there as the action unfolds, are freed for that time period from one of the most annoying aspects of our "humble state," and especially our modern "humble state"--that never-ending twitter of the voices in the head telling you that, whatever you're doing, you should maybe be doing something else. "Distracted from distraction by distraction," as T.S. Eliot said. Only, for those of us with an overdeveloped sense of guilt, one doesn't enjoy or even really want that distraction. Instead, one feels guilty about it.

It is one of the wonders of the story of salvation that the Almighty God can and does use poor creatures like ourselves as tools in his plan. Even when not actively malicious, we are twitching little piles of worries, neuroses, sense data, conflicting impulses, and selfishness.

It might be easy to think that the problem is that we are embodied at all, that it is the body with its sensory inputs, its passions, and its desires that distracts us from a pure focus of mind and will--on God or great thoughts, for example. But that isn't true. For one thing, some of the greatest moments of focus come through the bodily senses, with music being a prime example. An insuperable theological objection to the idea that the body is the problem is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In our end-state, the state for which God always intended us, we will be both embodied and enjoying the beatific vision. So the problem lies not with "the body" per se, meaning any body, but with the specifics of our embodiment, with our feebleness and insufficiency in our current situation. But one day, that will all be different. Our Lord Jesus suffers from no such feebleness and insufficiency, and one day we shall be like him.

This is a very great promise. God knows our state. He remembers that we are dust. He knows what it is like for us to be fretting about conflicting duties, unsure that we are "doing the best thing," finding it difficult to rest easy and confident and to focus on the task in front of us. And he promises that part of our glorified state is that we will be saved from all of that. Our Savior Jesus Christ will return and, at the resurrection, change the body of this lowly state to make us what we were intended to be--strong, focused, confident, perfected, and loving God with all our hearts, minds, and souls.

So let us look toward heaven and await that blessed hope.