Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mrs. Amworth by E.F. Benson



The village of Maxley, where, last summer and autumn, these strange events took place, lies on a heathery and pine-clad upland of Sussex. In all England you could not find a sweeter and saner situation. Should the wind blow from the south, it comes laden with the spices of the sea; to the east high downs protect it from the inclemencies of March; and from the west and north the breezes which reach it travel over miles of aromatic forest and heather. The village itself is insignificant enough in point of population, but rich in amenities and beauty. Half-way down the single street, with its broad road and spacious areas of grass on each side, stands the little Norman Church and the antique graveyard long disused: for the rest there are a dozen small, sedate Georgian houses, red-bricked and long-windowed, each with a square of flower-garden in front, and an ampler strip behind; a score of shops, and a couple of score of thatched cottages belonging to labourers on neighbouring estates, complete the entire cluster of its peaceful habitations. The general peace, however, is sadly broken on Saturdays and Sundays, for we lie on one of the main roads between London and Brighton and our quiet street becomes a race-course for flying motor-cars and bicycles. A notice just outside the village begging them to go slowly only seems to encourage them to accelerate their speed, for the road lies open and straight, and there is really no reason why they should do otherwise. By way of protest, therefore, the ladies of Maxley cover their noses and mouths with their handkerchiefs as they see a motor-car approaching, though, as the street is asphalted, they need not really take these precautions against dust. But late on Sunday night the horde of scorchers has passed, and we settle down again to five days of cheerful and leisurely seclusion. Railway strikes which agitate the country so much leave us undisturbed because most of the inhabitants of Maxley never leave it at all.
I am the fortunate possessor of one of these small Georgian houses, and consider myself no less fortunate in having so interesting and stimulating a neighbour as Francis Urcombe, who, the most confirmed of Maxleyites, has not slept away from his house, which stands just opposite to mine in the village street, for nearly two years, at which date, though still in middle life, he resigned his Physiological Professorship at Cambridge University, and devoted himself to the study of those occult and curious phenomena which seem equally to concern the physical and the psychical sides of human nature. Indeed his retirement was not unconnected with his passion for the strange uncharted places that lie on the confines and borders of science, the existence of which is so stoutly denied by the more materialistic minds, for he advocated that all medical students should be obliged to pass some sort of examination in mesmerism, and that one of the tripos papers should be designed to test their knowledge in such subjects as appearances at time of death, haunted houses, vampirism, automatic writing, and possession.
"Of course they wouldn't listen to me," ran his account of the matter, "for there is nothing that these seats of learning are so frightened of as knowledge, and the road to knowledge lies in the study of things like these. The functions of the human frame are, broadly speaking, known. They are a country, anyhow, that has been charted and mapped out. But outside that lie huge tracts of undiscovered country, which certainly exist, and the real pioneers of knowledge are those who, at the cost of being derided as credulous and superstitious, want to push on into those misty and probably perilous places. I felt that I could be of more use by setting out without compass or knapsack into the mists than by sitting in a cage like a canary and chirping about what was known. Besides, teaching is very very bad for a man who knows himself only to be a learner: you only need to be a self-conceited ass to teach."
Here, then, in Francis Urcombe, was a delightful neighbour to one who, like myself, has an uneasy and burning curiosity about what he called the "misty and perilous places"; and this last spring we had a further and most welcome addition to our pleasant little community, in the person of Mrs. Amworth, widow of an Indian civil servant. Her husband had been a judge in the North-West Provinces, and after his death at Peshawar she came back to England, and after a year in London found herself starving for the ampler air and sunshine of the country to take the place of the fogs and griminess of town. She had, too, a special reason for settling in Maxley, since her ancestors up till a hundred years ago had long been native to the place, and in the old churchyard, now disused, are many gravestones bearing her maiden name of Chaston. Big and energetic, her vigorous and genial personality speedily woke Maxley up to a higher degree of sociality than it had ever known. Most of us were bachelors or spinsters or elderly folk not much inclined to exert ourselves in the expense and effort of hospitality, and hitherto the gaiety of a small tea-party, with bridge afterwards and goloshes (when it was wet) to trip home in again for a solitary dinner, was about the climax of our festivities. But Mrs. Amworth showed us a more gregarious way, and set an example of luncheon-parties and little dinners, which we began to follow. On other nights when no such hospitality was on foot, a lone man like myself found it pleasant to know that a call on the telephone to Mrs. Amworth's house not a hundred yards off, and an enquiry as to whether I might come over after dinner for a game of piquet before bed-time, would probably evoke a response of welcome. There she would be, with a comrade-like eagerness for companionship, and there was a glass of port and a cup of coffee and a cigarette and a game of piquet. She played the piano, too, in a free and exuberant manner, and had a charming voice and sang to her own accompaniment; and as the days grew long and the light lingered late, we played our game in her garden, which in the course of a few months she had turned from being a nursery for slugs and snails into a glowing patch of luxuriant blossomings. She was always cheery and jolly; she was interested in everything, and in music, in gardening, in games of all sorts was a competent performer. Everybody (with one exception) liked her, everybody felt her to bring with her the tonic of a sunny day. That one exception was Francis Urcombe; he, though he confessed he did not like her, acknowledged that he was vastly interested in her. This always seemed strange to me, for pleasant and jovial as she was, I could see nothing in her that could call forth conjecture or intrigued surmise, so healthy and unmysterious a figure did she present. But of the genuineness of Urcombe's interest there could be no doubt; one could see him watching and scrutinising her. In matter of age, she frankly volunteered the information that she was forty-five; but her briskness, her activity, her unravaged skin, her coal-black hair, made it difficult to believe that she was not adopting an unusual device, and adding ten years on to her age instead of subtracting them.
Often, also, as our quite unsentimental friendship ripened, Mrs. Amworth would ring me up and propose her advent. If I was busy writing, I was to give her, so we definitely bargained, a frank negative, and in answer I could hear her jolly laugh and her wishes for a successful evening of work. Sometimes, before her proposal arrived, Urcombe would already have stepped across from his house opposite for a smoke and a chat, and he, hearing who my intended visitor was, always urged me to beg her to come. She and I should play our piquet, said he, and he would look on, if we did not object, and learn something of the game. But I doubt whether he paid much attention to it, for nothing could be clearer than that, under that penthouse of forehead and thick eyebrows, his attention was fixed not on the cards, but on one of the players. But he seemed to enjoy an hour spent thus, and often, until one particular evening in July, he would watch her with the air of a man who has some deep problem in front of him. She, enthusiastically keen about our game, seemed not to notice his scrutiny. Then came that evening when, as I see in the light of subsequent events, began the first twitching of the veil that hid the secret horror from my eyes. I did not know it then, though I noticed that thereafter, if she rang up to propose coming round, she always asked not only if I was at leisure, but whether Mr. Urcombe was with me. If so, she said, she would not spoil the chat of two old bachelors, and laughingly wished me good night. Urcombe, on this occasion, had been with me for some half-hour before Mrs. Amworth's appearance, and had been talking to me about the medieval beliefs concerning vampirism, one of those borderland subjects which he declared had not been sufficiently studied before it had been consigned by the medical profession to the dust-heap of exploded superstitions. There he sat, grim and eager, tracing with that pellucid clearness which had made him in his Cambridge days so admirable a lecturer, the history of those mysterious visitations. In them all there were the same general features: one of those ghoulish spirits took up its abode in a living man or woman, conferring supernatural powers of bat-like flight and glutting itself with nocturnal blood-feasts. When its host died it continued to dwell in the corpse, which remained undecayed. By day it rested, by night it left the grave and went on its awful errands. No European country in the Middle Ages seemed to have escaped them; earlier yet, parallels were to be found, in Roman and Greek and in Jewish history.
"It's a large order to set all that evidence aside as being moonshine," he said. "Hundreds of totally independent witnesses in many ages have testified to the occurrence of these phenomena, and there's no explanation known to me which covers all the facts. And if you feel inclined to say 'Why, then, if these are facts, do we not come across them now?' there are two answers I can make you. One is that there were diseases known in the Middle Ages, such as the black death, which were certainly existent then and which have become extinct since, but for that reason we do not assert that such diseases never existed. Just as the black death visited England and decimated the population of Norfolk, so here in this very district about three hundred years ago there was certainly an outbreak of vampirism, and Maxley was the centre of it. My second answer is even more convincing, for I tell you that vampirism is by no means extinct now. An outbreak of it certainly occurred in India a year or two ago."
At that moment I heard my knocker plied in the cheerful and peremptory manner in which Mrs. Amworth is accustomed to announce her arrival, and I went to the door to open it.
"Come in at once," I said, "and save me from having my blood curdled. Mr. Urcombe has been trying to alarm me."
Instantly her vital, voluminous presence seemed to fill the room.
"Ah, but how lovely!" she said. "I delight in having my blood curdled. Go on with your ghost-story, Mr. Urcombe. I adore ghost-stories."
I saw that, as his habit was, he was intently observing her.
"It wasn't a ghost-story exactly," said he. "I was only telling our host how vampirism was not extinct yet. I was saying that there was an outbreak of it in India only a few years ago."
There was a more than perceptible pause, and I saw that, if Urcombe was observing her, she on her side was observing him with fixed eye and parted mouth. Then her jolly laugh invaded that rather tense silence.
"Oh, what a shame!" she said. "You're not going to curdle my blood at all. Where did you pick up such a tale, Mr. Urcombe? I have lived for years in India and never heard a rumour of such a thing. Some story-teller in the bazaars must have invented it: they are famous at that."
I could see that Urcombe was on the point of saying something further, but checked himself.
"Ah! very likely that was it," he said.
But something had disturbed our usual peaceful sociability that night, and something had damped Mrs. Amworth's usual high spirits. She had no gusto for her piquet, and left after a couple of games. Urcombe had been silent too, indeed he hardly spoke again till she departed.
"That was unfortunate," he said, "for the outbreak of -- of a very mysterious disease, let us call it, took place at Peshawar where she and her husband were. And --"

"Well?" I asked.
"He was one of the victims of it," said he. "Naturally I had quite forgotten that when I spoke."
The summer was unreasonably hot and rainless, and Maxley suffered much from drought, and also from a plague of big black night-flying gnats, the bite of which was very irritating and virulent. They came sailing in of an evening, settling on one's skin so quietly that one perceived nothing till the sharp stab announced that one had been bitten. They did not bite the hands or face, but chose always the neck and throat for their feeding-ground, and most of us, as the poison spread, assumed a temporary goitre. Then about the middle of August appeared the first of those mysterious cases of illness which our local doctor attributed to the long-continued heat coupled with the bite of these venomous insects. The patient was a boy of sixteen or seventeen, the son of Mrs. Amworth's gardener, and the symptoms were an anemic pallor and a languid prostration, accompanied by great drowsiness and an abnormal appetite. He had, too, on his throat two small punctures where, so Dr. Ross conjectured, one of these great gnats had bitten him. But the odd thing was that there was no swelling or inflammation round the place where he had been bitten. The heat at this time had begun to abate, but the cooler weather failed to restore him, and the boy, in spite of the quantity of good food which he so ravenously swallowed, wasted away to a skin-clad skeleton.
I met Dr. Ross in the street one afternoon about this time, and in answer to my enquiries about his patient he said that he was afraid the boy was dying. The case, he confessed, completely puzzled him: some obscure form of pernicious anemia was all he could suggest. But he wondered whether Mr. Urcombe would consent to see the boy, on the chance of his being able to throw some new light on the case, and since Urcombe was dining with me that night, I proposed to Dr. Ross to join us. He could not do this, but said he would look in later. When he came, Urcombe at once consented to put his skill at the other's disposal, and together they went off at once. Being thus shorn of my sociable evening, I telephoned to Mrs. Amworth to know if I might inflict myself on her for an hour. Her answer was a welcoming affirmative, and between piquet and music the hour lengthened itself into two. She spoke of the boy who was lying so desperately and mysteriously ill, and told me that she had often been to see him, taking him nourishing and delicate food. But to-day -- and her kind eyes moistened as she spoke -- she was afraid she had paid her last visit. Knowing the antipathy between her and Urcombe, I did not tell her that he had been called into consultation; and when I returned home she accompanied me to my door, for the sake of a breath of night air, and in order to borrow a magazine which contained an article on gardening which she wished to read.
"Ah, this delicious night air," she said, luxuriously sniffing in the coolness. "Night air and gardening are the great tonics. There is nothing so stimulating as bare contact with rich mother earth. You are never so fresh as when you have been grubbing in the soil -- black hands, black nails, and boots covered with mud." She gave her great jovial laugh.
"I'm a glutton for air and earth," she said. "Positively I look forward to death, for then I shall be buried and have the kind earth all round me. No leaden caskets for me -- I have given explicit directions. But what shall I do about air? Well, I suppose one can't have everything. The magazine? A thousand thanks, I will faithfully return it. Good night: garden and keep your windows open, and you won't have anemia."
"I always sleep with my windows open," said I.
I went straight up to my bedroom, of which one of the windows looks out over the street, and as I undressed I thought I heard voices talking outside not far away. But I paid no particular attention, put out my lights, and falling asleep plunged into the depths of a most horrible dream, distortedly suggested, no doubt, by my last words with Mrs. Amworth. I dreamed that I woke, and found that both my bedroom windows were shut. Half-suffocating I dreamed that I sprang out of bed, and went across to open them. The blind over the first one was drawn down, and pulling it up I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth's face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me. Pulling down the blind again to keep that terror out, I rushed to the second window on the other side of the room, and there again was Mrs. Amworth's face. Then the panic came upon me in full blast; here was I suffocating in the airless room, and whichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth's face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware. The nightmare rose to screaming point, and with strangled yells I awoke to find my room cool and quiet with both windows open and blinds up and a half-moon high in its course, casting an oblong of tranquil light on the floor. But even when I was awake the horror persisted, and I lay tossing and turning. I must have slept long before the nightmare seized me, for now it was nearly day, and soon in the east the drowsy eyelids of morning began to lift.
I was scarcely downstairs next morning -- for after the dawn I slept late -- when Urcombe rang up to know if he might see me immediately. He came in, grim and preoccupied, and I noticed that he was pulling on a pipe that was not even filled.
"I want your help," he said, "and so I must tell you first of all what happened last night. I went round with the little doctor to see his patient, and found him just alive, but scarcely more. I instantly diagnosed in my own mind what this anemia, unaccountable by any other explanation, meant. The boy is the prey of a vampire."
He put his empty pipe on the breakfast-table, by which I had just sat down, and folded his arms, looking at me steadily from under his overhanging brows.
"Now about last night," he said. "I insisted that he should be moved from his father's cottage into my house. As we were carrying him on a stretcher, whom should we meet but Mrs. Amworth? She expressed shocked surprise that we were moving him. Now why do you think she did that?"

With a start of horror, as I remembered my dream that night before, I felt an idea come into my mind so preposterous and unthinkable that I instantly turned it out again.
"I haven't the smallest idea," I said.
"Then listen, while I tell you about what happened later. I put out all light in the room where the boy lay, and watched. One window was a little open, for I had forgotten to close it, and about midnight I heard something outside, trying apparently to push it farther open. I guessed who it was -- yes, it was full twenty feet from the ground -- and I peeped round the corner of the blind. Just outside was the face of Mrs. Amworth and her hand was on the frame of the window. Very softly I crept close, and then banged the window down, and I think I just caught the tip of one of her fingers."
"But it's impossible," I cried. "How could she be floating in the air like that? And what had she come for? Don't tell me such Once more, with closer grip, the remembrance of my nightmare seized me.
"I am telling you what I saw," said he. "And all night long, until it was nearly day, she was fluttering outside, like some terrible bat, trying to gain admittance. Now put together various things I have told you."
He began checking them off on his fingers.
"Number one," he said: "there was an outbreak of disease similar to that which this boy is suffering from at Peshawar, and her husband died of it. Number two: Mrs. Amworth protested against my moving the boy to my house. Number three: she, or the demon that inhabits her body, a creature powerful and deadly, tries to gain admittance. And add this, too: in medieval times there was an epidemic of vampirism here at Maxley. The vampire, so the accounts run, was found to be Elizabeth Chaston . . . I see you remember Mrs. Amworth's maiden name. Finally, the boy is stronger this morning. He would certainly not have been alive if he had been visited again. And what do you make of it?"
There was a long silence, during which I found this incredible horror assuming the hues of reality.
"I have something to add," I said, "which may or may not bear on it. You say that the -- the spectre went away shortly before dawn."
"Yes."
I told him of my dream, and he smiled grimly.
"Yes, you did well to awake," he said. "That warning came from your subconscious self, which never wholly slumbers, and cried out to you of deadly danger. For two reasons, then, you must help me: one to save others, the second to save yourself."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
"I want you first of all to help me in watching this boy, and ensuring that she does not come near him. Eventually I want you to help me in tracking the thing down, in exposing and destroying it. It is not human: it is an incarnate fiend. What steps we shall have to take I don't yet know."
It was now eleven of the forenoon, and presently I went across to his house for a twelve-hour vigil while he slept, to come on duty again that night, so that for the next twenty-four hours either Urcombe or myself was always in the room where the boy, now getting stronger every hour, was lying. The day following was Saturday and a morning of brilliant, pellucid weather, and already when I went across to his house to resume my duty the stream of motors down to Brighton had begun. Simultaneously I saw Urcombe with a cheerful face, which boded good news of his patient, coming out of his house, and Mrs. Amworth, with a gesture of salutation to me and a basket in her hand, walking up the broad strip of grass which bordered the road. There we all three met. I noticed (and saw that Urcombe noticed it too) that one finger of her left hand was bandaged.
"Good morning to you both," said she. "And I hear your patient is doing well, Mr. Urcombe. I have come to bring him a bowl of jelly, and to sit with him for an hour. He and I are great friends. I am overjoyed at his recovery."
Urcombe paused a moment, as if making up his mind, and then shot out a pointing finger at her.
"I forbid that," he said. "You shall not sit with him or see him. And you know the reason as well as I do."
I have never seen so horrible a change pass over a human face as that which now blanched hers to the colour of a grey mist. She put up her hand as if to shield herself from that pointing finger. which drew the sign of the cross in the air, and shrank back cowering on to the road. There was a wild hoot from a horn, a grinding of brakes, a shout -- too late -- from a passing car, and one long scream suddenly cut short. Her body rebounded from the roadway after the first wheel had gone over it, and the second followed it. It lay there, quivering and twitching, and was still.
She was buried three days afterwards in the cemetery outside Maxley, in accordance with the wishes she had told me that she had devised about her interment, and the shock which her sudden and awful death had caused to the little community began by degrees to pass off. To two people only, Ureombe and myself, the horror of it was mitigated from the first by the nature of the relief that her death brought; but, naturally enough, we kept our own counsel, and no hint of what greater horror had been thus averted was ever let slip. But, oddly enough, so it seemed to me, he was still not satisfied about something in connection with her, and would give no answer to my questions on the subject. Then as the days of a tranquil mellow September and the October that followed began to drop away like the leaves of the yellowing trees, his uneasiness relaxed. But before the entry of November the seeming tranquillity broke into hurricane.
I had been dining one night at the far end of the village, and about eleven o'clock was walking home again. The moon was of an unusual brilliance, rendering all that it shone on as distinct as in some etching. I had just come opposite the house which Mrs. Amworth had occupied, where there was a board up telling that it was to let, when I heard the click of her front gate, and next moment I saw, with a sudden chill and quaking of my very spirit, that she stood there. Her profile, vividly illuminated, was turned to me, and I could not be mistaken in my identification of her. She appeared not to see me (indeed the shadow of the yew hedge in front of her garden enveloped me in its blackness) and she went swiftly across the road, and entered the gate of the house directly opposite. There I lost sight of her completely.
My breath was coming in short pants as if I had been running -- and now indeed I ran, with fearful backward glances, along the hundred yards that separated me from my house and Urcombe's. It was to his that my flying steps took me, and next minute I was within.
"What have you come to tell me?" he asked. "Or shall I guess?"
"You can't guess," said I.
"No; it's no guess. She has come back and you have seen her. Tell me about it."
I gave him my story.
"That's Major Pearsall's house," he said. "Come back with me there at once."
"But what can we do?" I asked.
"I've no idea. That's what we have got to find out."
A minute later, we were opposite the house. When I had passed it before, it was all dark; now lights gleamed from a couple of windows upstairs. Even as we faced it, the front door opened, and next moment Major Pearsall emerged from the gate. He saw us and stopped.
"I'm on my way to Dr. Ross," he said quickly. "My wife has been taken suddenly ill. She had been in bed an hour when I came upstairs, and I found her white as a ghost and utterly exhausted. She had been to sleep, it seemed -- But you will excuse me.
"One moment, Major," said Urcombe. "Was there any mark on her throat?"
"How did you guess that?" said he. "There was: one of those beastly gnats must have bitten her twice there. She was streaming with blood."
'And there's someone with her?" asked Urcombe.
"Yes, I roused her maid."
He went off, and Urcombe turned to me. "I know now what we have to do," he said. "Change your clothes, and I'll join you at your house."
"What is it?" I asked.
"I'll tell you on our way. We're going to the cemetery."

He carried a pick, a shovel, and a screwdriver when he rejoined me, and wore round his shoulders a long coil of rope. As we walked, he gave me the outlines of the ghastly hour that lay before us.
"What I have to tell you," he said, "will seem to you now too fantastic for credence, but before dawn we shall see whether it outstrips reality. By a most fortunate happening, you saw the spectre, the astral body, whatever you choose to call it, of Mrs. Amworth, going on its grisly business, and therefore, beyond doubt, the vampire spirit which abode in her during life animates her again in death. That is not exceptional -- indeed, all these weeks since her death I have been expecting it. If I am right, we shall find her body undecayed and untouched by corruption."
"But she has been dead nearly two months," said I.
"If she had been dead two years it would still be so, if the vampire has possession of her. So remember: whatever you see done, it will be done not to her, who in the natural course would now be feeding the grasses above her grave, but to a spirit of untold evil and malignancy, which gives a phantom life to her body."
"But what shall I see done?" said I.
"I will tell you. We know that now, at this moment, the vampire clad in her mortal semblance is out; dining out. But it must get back before dawn, and it will pass into the material form that lies in her grave. We must wait for that, and then with your help I shall dig up her body. If I am right, you will look on her as she was in life, with the full vigour of the dreadful nutriment she has received pulsing in her veins. And then, when dawn has come, and the vampire cannot leave the lair of her body, I shall strike her with this" -- and he pointed to his pick -- "through the heart, and she, who comes to life again only with the animation the fiend gives her, she and her hellish partner will be dead indeed. Then we must bury her again, delivered at last."
We had come to the cemetery, and in the brightness of the moonshine there was no difficulty in identifying her grave. It lay some twenty yards from the small chapel, in the porch of which, obscured by shadow, we concealed ourselves. From there we had a clear and open sight of the grave, and now we must wait till its infernal visitor returned home. The night was warm and windless, yet even if a freezing wind had been raging I think I should have felt nothing of it, so intense was my preoccupation as to what the night and dawn would bring. There was a bell in the turret of the chapel that struck the quarters of the hour, and it amazed me to find how swiftly the chimes succeeded one another.
The moon had long set, but a twilight of stars shone in a clear sky, when five o'clock of the morning sounded from the turret. A few minutes more passed, and then I felt Urcombe's hand softly nudging me; and looking out in the direction of his pointing finger, I saw that the form of a woman, tall and large in build, was approaching from the right. Noiselessly, with a motion more of gliding and floating than walking, she moved across the cemetery to the grave which was the centre of our observation. She moved round it as if to be certain of its identity, and for a moment stood directly facing us. In the greyness to which now my eyes had grown accustomed, I could easily see her face, and recognise its features.
She drew her hand across her mouth as if wiping it, and broke into a chuckle of such laughter as made my hair stir on my head. Then she leaped on to the grave, holding her hands high above her head, and inch by inch disappeared into the earth. Urcombe's hand was laid on my arm, in an injunction to keep still, but now he removed it.
"Come," he said.
With pick and shovel and rope we went to the grave. The earth was light and sandy, and soon after six struck we had delved down to the coffin lid. With his pick he loosened the earth round it, and, adjusting the rope through the handles by which it had been lowered, we tried to raise it. This was a long and laborious business, and the light had begun to herald day in the east before we had it out, and lying by the side of the grave. With his screwdriver he loosed the fastenings of the lid, and slid it aside, and standing there we looked on the face of Mrs. Amworth. The eyes, once closed in death, were open, the cheeks were flushed with colour, the red, full-lipped mouth seemed to smile.
"One blow and it is all over," he said. "You need not look." Even as he spoke he took up the pick again, and, laying the point of it on her left breast, measured his distance. And though I knew what was coming I could not look away.
He grasped the pick in both hands, raised it an inch or two for the taking of his aim, and then with full force brought it down on her breast. A fountain of blood, though she had been dead so long, spouted high in the air, falling with the thud of a heavy splash over the shroud, and simultaneously from those red lips came one long, appalling cry, swelling up like some hooting siren, and dying away again. With that, instantaneous as a lightning flash, came the touch of corruption on her face, the colour of it faded to ash, the plump cheeks fell in, the mouth dropped.
"Thank God, that's over," said he, and without pause slipped the coffin lid back into its place.
Day was coming fast now, and, working like men possessed, we lowered the coffin into its place again, and shovelled the earth over it. . . . The birds were busy with their earliest pipings as we went back to Maxley.

Book Review: Classic Vampire Short Stories (read) by Richard Pasco

Classic Vampire Short StoriesClassic Vampire Short Stories by Richard Pasco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I listened to the audio version of this, which was very well read.

Overall, the stories are average (which I've found to be generally the case with short stories, most authors need some to really get into something), but nonetheless interesting. And of course, anything by Kipling is going to be a blast...



View all my reviews

Life Together II: The Foundations


Having, as we trust, been brought by divine grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give up ourselves to him, and having been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, we do now, relying on His gracious aid, solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.
-Capitol Hill Baptist Church Covenant, Paragraph 1

The opening paragraph of the CHBC covenant acts as a definition of what the church is and a declaration of purpose of what the church is doing.
The church, according to this statement, is a group of Christians who have "been brought by divine grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give ourselves up to him," and who have "been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." Five characteristics of Christians who form a church stand out in this statement:
  1. Grace: The foundational aspect of any Christian's life is grace. The gratuitous kindness of God must be the starting point of any Christian life. It is the source of the new life, and the fountain from which flows all other characteristics of the Christian, including faith, repentance, obedience, and so on. Grace must always be held as the foundation the church covenant (and indeed, of all of Christian life), because through it alone is the sinner continually turned to Christ as the source of salvation. To forget that salvation is an unmerited gift is to begin to replace the work and kindness of God with our own merits. God warns Israel about this in Deuteronomy, when he says to them, once they have taken the land from the Canaanites,
    "After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, 'The Lord has brought be here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.' No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people." (Deut. 9:4-6)
    To be a Christian is to be the recipient of undeserved Divine favor. Forgetting this individually leads to pride and self-justification. Forgetting this as a church equally leads to pride and self-justification, albeit on a larger scale. When grace is ignored as the source of the life of the church, emphasis must be placed elsewhere. Sacraments, music styles, personality, liturgy, and any of countless other things (often things which in their proper place are quite useful and beneficial) come to define the church, and in doing so become her idol. Instead of being known as "those forgiven sinners", the church becomes "those with rock music in their service" or "those with the good preacher" or even "those who have communion every week." The doctrine of grace must be the beating heart of the church, without it life cannot flow.
  2. Repentance: one of the effects of grace in the heart of a Christian is that the Christian becomes aware not only of the existence of his own sin, but of its deeply personal offensiveness to God. Repentance is the sinner's sorrow over his sin, and his resolve no longer to choose it over God. In a very broad sense, "repentance" is agreeing with God about the true nature of sin and our natural standing as "condemned" in his presence, and our rejection of that sin and of our own nature in favor of God.
    As a church, "repentance" expresses itself by the continual public acknowledgement of error, and continual corporate self-examination for sin among the body of believers. We as a congregation admit that we have rebelled against God and acted in a way displeasing to Him, and we consequently turn to Him and petition for His mercy because of the work of Christ in paying for that sin on the cross.
  3. Faith: A further effect of grace in the heart of a Christian is belief. This is not vague "faith in faith" so commonly talked about amongst modern and postmodern theologians, rather it is a concrete belief in the life and deeds of the historical person Jesus Christ. "Now faith", says the author of Hebrews, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Such weighty and tangible words as "substance" and "evidence" are by no means inappropriate, as they reveal the certainty and confidence with which Christian faith may look to Christ. "Faith", for the Christian, is the utter and complete certainty that the life and death of Jesus Christ have completed the work of salvation. As Christians, we believe that our sin has been paid for in the death of Christ on the cross, and that our righteousness, the virtuous life which we were supposed to have lived, is not found in our obedience to the law, but rather in Christ's perfect life. this is not a vague abstraction, but a concrete historical reality.
    As a church, we place our faith not in our own corporate actions but in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our hope of heaven is not built on our life together, our life together is built on our faith in the Gospel. We are bound not by race or gender or social class, but rather by our belief that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, slain in our place.
  4. Obedience: true repentance and belief will be reflected in obedience, in giving ourselves "up to him." "We know" write John, "that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person." (I John 2:3-4) If we claim to have repented of our sins and to believe that Christ has saved us on the cross and no change is made in our lives, we lie to ourselves, to the church, and to God. Belief is not mere verbal assent, it is a living thing, a pulse that sends change throughout our entire existence just as the heart sends blood through the body. To be a Christian is not mere to hold a new set of doctrines, it is to live a new life.
    And to be a Christian in a church is to gather with others who share this new life. Consequently, the church should be dedicated to reflecting its belief in obedience. Admittedly, this can be difficult. Not only does sin continue to affect (though it may no longer dominate) the Christian and the church, but Scripture is not always clear on what obedience is required from the church as a corporate body. Wise and faithful Christians have for centuries rightly disagreed over interpretations of key passages, sometimes not merely in their meaning, but over whether they apply to the church at all, or are intended for believers individually. Nevertheless, despite theological disagreement, the day-to-day functions of the church remain relatively clear. We are to love each other;  we are to serve each other with kindness; those with means and abilities are to serve those without; above all we are to remind ourselves and each other of the grace of Jesus Christ in saving us from our sins, and to encourage each other to build our obedience on that great act of salvation.
  5. Baptism: one fundamental act of obedience commanded repeatedly through Scripture is being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Upon becoming a Christian, this is our public declaration of what Jesus has done for us. In this symbolic act, we show the world by being immersed in water that Christ was immersed in God's wrath for us, and by being raised from the water that we will follow Christ in his resurrection into eternal life.
    As a church, we both baptize* and require baptism for those who would commit themselves to join publicly with the body of believers. On the negative side, without having been baptized, one cannot claim to be obedient, and without obedience one cannot give evidence of faith. This is not to say that baptism causes salvation, but it is to say that claiming salvation while continually refusing to obey the direct command of Christ suggests an unrepentant and unbelieving heart.
    On the positive side, baptism is how the members of a church declare ourselves to be set apart from society through the Gospel. It is one of the few acts of obedience which there is no reason for a non-Christian to perform. Acts of charity, public service, love of neighbor may all be justified and recognized as valuable by those who reject Christ, but baptism serves no purpose other than as a delight-filled reflection of what Jesus has done for us and a means of symbolically separating ourselves from the world.
Under these five characteristics, the church declares its purpose as it covenants together "solemnly and joyfully." With great solemnity, for salvation is a serious and weighty matter, the church declares its unshakable unity around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With great joy, for the Gospel is good news to a dying world, the church joins together in remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our place. The church covenant is a reminder of this good news and a declaration of how, building upon grace, repentance, faith, and obedience (remembering that we have been set apart through baptism) our lives together will reflect what Jesus has done for us.



*Though this may not be an exclusive function of the church. There is certainly Biblical evidence for baptism taking place in a private setting, and the early church clearly taught (see Acts chapter 8 and the Didache).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book Review: The Christians as the Romans saw them by Robert Louis Wilken

The Christians as the Romans Saw ThemThe Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I "read" this book (i.e. "had it assigned") in undergrad, but have gone back through it in the past couple of weeks as part of my "keeping up with political theory-ish stuff" project (counting this as part of the "Christian political theory" category).



Wilcken's project is to explore Christianity through the eyes of the pagan Romans, both in terms of the general cultural perception (in two chapters, one on the perception of Christians as a "burial society" and one on the perecption of Christians as a "superstition") and through the eyes of five observers: Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. Wilken suggests that there are two broad points uniting all Roman criticism of Christianity:

-Christians undermine the entire Roman system when they reject "the gods" of localities and traditions and replace "the one Supreme god" with Jesus. All of Roman society and order (especially under the Imperial system) was based on religious traditions. When Christianity rejected those traditions, it of necessity rejected the whole of Roman society. This is seen even in Christianty's own origins as a break-away Jewish cult, which even rejected its own traditions by refusing to obey the law (one of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Julian's attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple to prove Christianity wrong about the law being fulfilled).

-Christians make religion historical and personal by arguing that 1) God became a man and that 2) salvation comes to individuals. This is opposed to the accepted traditions that 1) the "Supreme god" is utterly transcendent, and would never step into a single location (which of necessity excludes all other peoples and locations); and that 2) all peoples, customs, and traditions have access to this one Supreme god via their local traditions and customs.



Overall, this book is very well done. It's just scholarly enough to show that Wilken knows his business, but well-written enough that anyone (even without a background in Ancient History) could pick it up and enjoy it. As with many books in this vein (including

Early Christian Thought & the Classical Tradition), Wilken's book is especially interesting given modern debates between Christians and the culture. Arguments used by Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, et. al. remain the primary points brought up by "modern" writers in their polemics against Christianity. Christians would be well served by going back and reading the early church's responses to these arguments and drawing on the long tradition of thought that has gone into them.



Highly recommended.



View all my reviews

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane EyreJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Everyone should read this book! First, a summary (with some of my favorite parts cited), then my thoughts on it:



Summary:

Powerful cosmic forces of good and evil are gathering over England like ominous storm clouds, ominously powerful ones, and only one girl has the courage and determination to stand up to the forces of evil: Jane Eyre.



Some of the best scenes:
I stood triumphantly over the man as he lay in a slowly-spreading puddle of his own blood and grinned at him, wielding the dripping knife I said "your mistake, Mr. Brocklehurst, was leaving me alive!"
As John, Eliza, and Georgiana stood around the newly-dead body of Mrs. Reed, I quietly slipped out of the room and turned the key in the door. Quickly and efficiently, as I had dreamed so often as a child, I soaked the carpet in pitch and struck a match to it. As I walked away from the burning mansion, the flames warmed my skin even as the triumph of justice warmed my heart.
And I couldn't find the exact quote from the book, but the scene where she smothered Helen Burns in her sleep was a good one too, as was the one where Mr. De Winter punches Mr. Darcy so hard that "forsooth, his descendents shall feel it unto the fifth generation."



Ultimately, of course (and spoiler alert here!) the best scene in the book is when Jane finally arrives at Mount Doom (somewhere in Wales, I think), but can't bring herself to throw the ring in, so instead she puts it on and marries Mr. [Redacted! You'll have to read it yourself to find out who she marries] and everyone lives happily ever after. Except of course, the chick who gets burned alive and falls off the roof. But that goes without saying.



My Thoughts:

Despite taking me forever and a day to read it (where "forever and a day" = "all summer"), I did enjoy the book in the say way I enjoyed Rebecca and other 19th century works that I've been subjected to read. In other words, I enjoyed reading it even if certain aspects of the book were.... wanting.



View all my reviews

Not, alas, one of my students...

IRL Troll - I Hope She Uses D and E Next Semester

Thursday, August 18, 2011

All those in favor of promoting David Thorne...

Office Troll - I Am Filing a Formal Complaint

Baxter Black, American Genius

One of the most under-appreciated (possibly because it's unknown, and has an increasingly smaller following) domestic American genres is Western literature. Of the modern Western writers, Baxter Black is possibly my favorite (though if we're counting writers who've passed away, Ralph Moody edges him out easily).








Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Review: Dragonrider by Cornelia Funke

Dragon RiderDragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is good, but it probably doesn't merit five stars in and of itself. And yet, it gets five stars because it's read by Brendan Fraser. Yep, that Brendan Fraser, which makes sense he was in the movie version of Inkheart, written by the same author. The plot is fun and the characters are well done and Brendan Fraser. Man, he's a great reader. Who would have thought that after seeing Dudley Do-Right or George of the Jungle?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more of Funke's books. She definitely has a great sense of character and plot development, and does villains well. Though in fact, the primary villain in this wasn't as good as some of the secondary ones, such as the baselisk and the sandmen. Of course they wouldn't have worked as a main villain, given that they seemed fairly local in their nature, but nonetheless they seemed to be better personifications of evil than the primary bad guy, who was more like a large, powerful child. A large, powerful child voiced by Brendan Fraser.

Even more, this book has many of the strengths of good "young adult" fiction (which I maintain is a stupid category, what makes a book "young adult" anyway?). In addition to great plot and characters, it has solid perceptions of good and evil, clarity of theme and purpose, and none of the modern or postmodern ambiguity that has tainted so many books in the past few decades.

And also, it's read by the guy who kills mummies.



Highly recommended.



View all my reviews


Monday, August 15, 2011

Review: Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old TestamentCommentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by G.K. Beale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I'm marking this book as "read", though I haven't technically "read" it from cover to cover (which, btw, is 1200+ double-columned pages!). What I have read is the introduction and several selections from it as I've needed to reference them. Overall, it's an excellent reference to use for a very specific purpose. It is exactly what the title says, a commetary on how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. The book (the parts I've read and used so far, anyway) is useful and relatively clear, if a bit more information than most non-academics are really going to need. Having said that, I've found it very useful in thinking through some of the difficult citations in the New Testament, especially when it seems like the author is making a bit of a stretch in quoting a specific passage.



View all my reviews

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Making movie posters better

The Intellectual Side of the Renaissance, according to Philip Schaff


§ 62. The Intellectual Awakening.

The discussions, which issued in the Reformatory councils and which those councils fostered, were a worthy expression of an awakening freedom of thought in the effort to secure relief from ecclesiastical abuses. The movement, to which the name Renaissance has been given, was a larger and far more successful effort, achieving freedom from the intellectual bondage to which the individual man had been subjected by the theology and hierarchy of the Church. The intelligence of Italy, and indeed of Western Europe as a whole, had grown weary of the monastic ideal of life, and the one-sided purpose of the scholastic systems to exalt heavenly concerns by ignoring or degrading things terrestrial. The Renaissance insisted upon the rights of the life that now is, and dignified the total sphere for which man’s intellect and his aesthetic and social tastes by nature fit him. It sought to give just recognition to man as the proprietor of the earth. It substituted the enlightened observer for the monk; the citizen for the contemplative recluse. It honored human sympathies more than conventual visions and dexterous theological dialectics. It substituted observation for metaphysics. It held forth the achievements of history. It called man to admire his own creations, the masterpieces of classical literature and the monuments of art. It bade him explore the works of nature and delight himself in their excellency. How different from the apparent or real indifference to the beauties of the natural world as shown, for example, by the monk, St. Bernard, was the attitude of Leon Battista Alberti, d. 1472, who bore testimony that the sight of a lovely landscape had more than once made him well of sickness.

In the narrower sense, the Renaissance may be confined to the recovery of the culture of Greece and Rome and the revival of polite literature and art, and it is sometimes designated the Revival of Letters. After having been taught for centuries that the literature of classic antiquity was full of snares and dangers for a Christian public, men opened their eyes and revelled with childlike delight in the discovery of ancient authors and history. Virgil sang again the Aeneid, Homer the Iliad and Odyssey. Cicero once more delivered his orations and Plato taught his philosophy. It was indeed an intellectual and artistic new birth that burst forth in Italy, a regeneration, as the word Renaissance means. But it was more. It was a revolt against monastic asceticism and scholasticism, the systems which cramped the free flow of bodily enthusiasm and intellectual inquiry. It called man from morbid self-mortifications as the most fitting discipline of mortal existence here below, and offered him the satisfaction of all the elements of his nature as his proper pursuit.

Beginning in Italy, this new enthusiasm spread north to Germany and extended as far as Scotland. North of the Alps, it was known as Humanism and its representatives as Humanists, the words being taken from literae humanae, or humaniores, that is, humane studies, the studies which develop the man as the proprietor of this visible sphere. In the wider sense, it comprehends the revival of literature and art, the development of rational criticism, the transition from feudalism to a new order of social organization, the elevation of the modern languages of Europe as vehicles for the highest thought, the emancipation of intelligence, and the expansion of human interests, the invention of the printing-press, the discoveries of navigation and the exploration of America and the East, and the definition of the solar system by Copernicus and Galileo,—in one word, all the progressive developments of the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, developments which have since been the concern of modern civilization.

The most discriminating characterization of this remarkable movement came from the pen of Michelet, who defined it as the discovery of the world and man. In this twofold aspect, Burckhardt, its leading historian for Italy, has treated the Renaissance with deep philosophical insight.

The period of the Renaissance lasts from the beginning of the 14th to the middle of the 16th century, from Roger Bacon, d. 1294, and Dante, d. 1321, to Raphael, d. 1520, and Michelangelo, d. 1564, Reuchlin, d. 1522, and Erasmus, d. 1536. For more than a century it proceeded in Italy without the patronage of the Church. Later, from the pontificate of Nicolas V. to the Medicean popes, Leo X. and Clement VII., it was fostered by the papal court. For this reason the last popes of the Middle Ages are known as the Renaissance popes. The movement in the courts may be divided into three periods: the age of the great Italian literati, Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, the age from 1400–1460, when the interest in classic literature predominated, and the age from 1460–1540, when the pursuit of the fine arts was the predominant feature. The first age contributed immortal works to literature. In the second, Plato and the other classics were translated and sedulously studied. In the last, the fine arts and architecture offered their array of genius in, Italy.

To some writers it has occurred to go back as far as Frederick II. for the beginnings of the movement. That sovereign embodied in himself a varied culture and a versatility of intellect rare in any age. With authorship and a knowledge of a number of languages, he combined enlightened ideas in regard to government and legislation, the patronage of higher education and the arts. For the varied interests of his mind, he has been called the first modern man. However, the literary activity of his court ceased at his death. Italy was not without its poets in the 13th century, but it is with the imposing figure of Dante that the revival of culture is to be dated. That a Renaissance should have been needed is a startling fact in the history of human development and demands explanation. The ban, which had been placed by the Church upon the study of the classic authors of antiquity and ancient institutions, palsied polite research and reading for a thousand years. Even before Jerome, whose mind had been disciplined in the study of the classics, at last pronounced them unfit for the eye of a Christian, Tertullian’s attitude was not favorable. Cassian followed Jerome; and Alcuin, the chief scholar of the 9th century, turned away from Virgil as a collection of lying fables. At the close of the 10th century, a pope reprimanded Arnulf of Orleans by reminding him that Peter was unacquainted with Plato, Virgil and Terence, and that God had been pleased to choose as His agents, not philosophers and rhetoricians, but rustics and unlettered men. In deference to such authorities the dutiful churchman turned from the closed pages of the old Romans and Greeks. Only did a selected author like Terence have here and there in a convent a clandestine though eager reader.

In the 12th century, it seemed as if a new era in literature was impending, as if the old learning was about to flourish again. The works of Aristotle became more fully known through the translations of the Arabs. Schools were started in which classic authors were read. Abaelard turned to Virgil as a prophet. The Roman law was discovered and explained at Bologna and other seats of learning. John of Salisbury, Grosseteste, Peter of Blois and other writers freely quoted from Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Ovid and other Latin authors. But the head of Western Christendom discerned in this movement a grave menace to theology and religion, and was quick to blight the new shoot with his curse, and in its early statutes, forced by the pope, the University of Paris excluded the literature of Rome from its curriculum.

But this arbitrary violence could not forever hold the mind of Europe in bonds. The satisfaction its intelligence was seeking, it did not find in the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen or the dismal pictures of the monastics. When the new movement burst forth, it burst forth in Italy, that beautiful country, the heir of Roman traditions. The glories of Italy’s past in history and in literature blazed forth again as after a long eclipse, and the cult of the beautiful, for which the Italian is born, came once more into free exercise. In spite of invasion after invasion the land remained Italian. Lombards, Goths, Normans had occupied it, but the invaders were romanized much more than the Italians were teutonized. The feudal system and Gothic architecture found no congenial soil south of the Alps. In the new era, it seemed natural that the poets and orators of old Italy should speak again in the land which they had witnessed as the mistress of all nations. The literature and law of Greece and Rome again became the educators of the Latin and also of the Teutonic races, preparing them to receive the seeds of modern civilization.

The tap-root of the Renaissance was individualism as opposed to sacerdotal authority. Its enfranchising process manifested itself in Roger Bacon, whose mind turned away from the rabbinical subtleties of the Schoolmen to the secrets of natural science and the discoveries of the earth reported by Rubruquis or suggested by his own reflection, and more fully in Dante, Marsiglius of Padua and Wyclif, who resisted the traditional authority of the papacy. It was active in the discussions of the Reformatory councils. And it received a strong impetus in the administration of the Lombard cities which gloried in their independence. With their authority the imperial policy of Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II. had clashed. Partly owing to the loose hold of the empire and partly owing to the papal policy, which found its selfish interests subserved better by free contending states and republics than by a unified kingdom of Italy under a single temporal head, these independent municipalities took such deep root that they withstood for nearly a thousand years the unifying process which, in the case of France, Great Britain and Spain, resulted in the consolidation of strong kingdoms soon after the era of the Crusades closed. Upon an oligarchical or a democratic basis, despots and soldiers of fortune secured control of their Italian states by force of innate ability. Individualism pushed aside the claims of birth, and it so happened in the 14th and 15th centuries that the heads of these states were as frequently men of illegitimate birth as of legitimate descent. In our change-loving Italy, wrote Pius II., "where nothing is permanent and no old dynasty exists, servants easily rise to be kings."

It was in the free republic of Florence, where individualism found the widest sphere for self-assertion, that the Renaissance took earliest root and brought forth its finest products. That municipality, which had more of the modern spirit of change and progress than any other mediaeval organism, invited and found satisfaction in novel and brilliant works of power, whether they were in the domain of government or of letters or even of religion, as under the spell of Savonarola. There Dante and Lionardo da Vinci were born, and there Machiavelli exploited his theories of the state and Michelangelo wrought. The Medici gave favor to all forms of enterprise that might bring glory to the city. After Nicolas V. ascended the papal throne, Rome vied with its northern neighbor as a centre of the arts and culture. The new tastes and pursuits also found a home in Ferrara, Urbino, Naples, Milan and Mantua.

Glorious the achievement of the Renaissance was, but it was the last movement of European significance in which Italy and the popes took the lead. Had the current of aesthetic and intellectual enthusiasm joined itself to a stream of religious regeneration, Italy might have kept in advance of other nations, but she produced no safe prophets. No Reformer arose to lead her away from dead religious forms to living springs of spiritual life, from ceremonies and relics to the New Testament.

In spreading north to Germany, Holland and England, the movement took on a more serious aspect. There it produced no poets or artists of the first rank, but in Reuchlin and Erasmus it had scholars whose erudition not only attracted the attention of their own but benefited succeeding generations and contributed directly to the Reformation. South of the Alps, culture was the concern of a special class and took on the form of a diversion, though it is true all classes must have looked with admiration upon the works of art that were being produced.

It was, then, the mission of the Renaissance to start the spirit of free inquiry, to certify to the mind its dignity, to expand the horizon to the faculties of man as a citizen of the world, to recover from the dust of ages the literary treasures and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, to inaugurate a style of fresh description, based on observation, in opposition to the dialectic circumlocution of the scholastic philosophy, to call forth the laity and to direct attention to the value of natural morality and the natural relationships of man with man. To the monk beauty was a snare, woman a temptation, pleasure a sin, the world vanity of vanities. The Humanist taught that the present life is worth living. The Renaissance breathed a cosmopolitan spirit and fostered universal sympathies. In the spirit of some of the yearnings of the later Roman authors, Dante exclaimed again, "My home is the world."

-Philip Schaff, The Middle Ages, 1294-1517, vol. 6 of The History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: No He Can't

No He Can't: How Barack Obama Is Dismantling Hope and ChangeNo He Can't: How Barack Obama Is Dismantling Hope and Change by Kevin McCullough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


[Sigh]

Yes, I've read this. Don't judge me! It was free, on the condition that I review. Which I shall do, now.



Honestly, I don't even know where to begin with this. I'm tempted to go the sarcasm route ("Having read this book, I no longer believe Obama has sold his soul to the devil, I now believe that Old Scratch has sold his soul to Obama..."), but frankly, I don't think that's wise or fair. So instead, I'll treat this the way I'd treat it if I were going to use it in a class. Which I am not. Ever.



Even harder is restraining myself where I disagree with McCullough on certain things. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize him for not thinking the same things are important that I think are important, so I’ll leave off things I think he should have talked about. Nor have I allowed myself to criticize his format. I realize that his native tongue is that of a columnist, and as someone who worked as one of those for a few years, I recognize that his tools of the trade are different and that he can’t be held to the same citation format that, say, I hold my freshmen students too. (If you’ve never worked in print media: citation rules are looser and generally run on the honor code, with the understanding that if you’re challenged, you can show your source. This is generally intended to save space and allow more material…) So no criticism there either …



Hardest of all is the fact that on some level, McCullough and I likely end up on the same side of things. I am certainly no fan of Obama as a president, and I tend to think that he is the ultimate proof that no academic should be given political power, ever. The man is clearly lost in a job that is far too difficult for someone with no actual leadership experience. We’re fortunate that, despite the economy, the world situation isn’t as terrible as it has been from time-to-time in the past. We’re not fighting a Civil War, or engaged with a mighty world power like Germany in the 40s or Spain in the 1890s. Nor do we have labor strikes or massive civil unrest. All things considered, if we’re going to have someone in office who has no clue what he’s doing, this is about as good a time as we could hope for. Okay, soapbox now put away…

The point of all of this is to say that I have some serious issues with the right wing as well, which makes it difficult to talk about this (and similar) books without sounding like I’m defending the current administration.



Okay, enough caveats, on to the review!



First, just the details:



Outline

McCullough breaks his book into four sections:

Part One: Economics (Financial Policy)

Part Two: "National Insecurity" (i.e. Foreign Policy and Military Policy)

Part Three: Erosion of Rights (Domestic Policy)

Part Four: Accountability to Caesar (Religious Policy)

Each section has five or six chapters, each of which is further broken into two parts, a longish analysis of Obama and the general state of the nation, and a shorter declaration of McCullough's position on the issue (if you're still in any doubt at that point), usually titled "Time for a Bit of Clarity."



This structure is a bit deceptive, really the book has only two major sections (though they do from time to time get a bit muddled): economics and religion.



Theme

McCullough's stated them is: "clarity trumps unity... always. For demanding unity or unification... without demanding an evaluation of the moral foundation on which such unity rests is an assured path to destruction." (pg 192)

That is the stated theme. What, ironically, is much less clear, is exactly what McCullough is trying to say. Back to this in a bit as well.



And, I think that’s enough. It’s not like this is a great work of philosophy, where even the structure teaches us something. Really, it’s more of a lengthy diary entry, loosely organized around a right-wing pundit’s analysis of the left-wing Obama administration.



On to the review proper!



Strengths

1. The book is well written and readable. Which of course is to be expected from a professional writer. Even more than that, though, it’s written as if it were a compilation of columns (which it might very well be), so chapters and sections tend to be short and fairly fast paced.



2. Whatever else he’s been doing the past few years, McCullough has certainly been following the career of Barak Obama with a great deal of interest. The amount of detail in this book can at times be overwhelming.



3. McCullough, for all his clear disagreement with the Obama administration, really doesn’t take any cheap shots. He sticks to issues and concerns which are generally agreed on (so none of the “birth certificate” nonsense), and highlights well some of the differences between mainstream right and left in the nation today.



4. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to praising the aspects of Obama where McCullough thinks he’s doing a good job (okay, maybe it’s more of a “section” than a chapter, but it’s still there). So kudos to McCullough for at least admitting that there’s some common ground.



5. McCullough recognizes that a (he calls it “the”) fundamental difference between left and right in America is theology. Which is a great starting place, but then he goes on to suggest that the difference is that a) the right believes that God is the moral authority in our lives, who “guides… actions, calls… to repentance, and seeks to mold them into better people;” often through the institutions of parenthood and marriage; while b) the left believes that God is unconcerned, “uninvolved or uninterested and certainly unauthoritative in today’s world,” and consequently the left is “confused by moral order.” (154-155) And here, despite identifying that theology is an important place to start a thoughtful analysis or discussion, McCullough goes immediately off track, arguing that the left is without moral compass, and in desperate need of parents (especially a father-figure) and Jesus to get back on track. (No, that’s not an exaggeration, McCullough repeatedly says that Obama needs God and a dad: “It should not be surprising that his own radar of right versus wrong is confused, misaligned, and sometimes malfunctioning. It’s how he was raised—pg 155). So technically, I’m counting this as both strength number 5 and weakness number 1, since it takes a great deal of intentional blindness to think that people on the left do not believe in morality or God. Different convictions is not the same thing as no convictions.



Weaknesses

1. See above.



2. This book is scattered. McCullough is certainly aware of a large number of issues and news stories from across the country and around the world, but he doesn’t always necessarily weave them tightly enough together in a single narrative. It’s a little unclear, for example, exactly why the “fact’ that Obama is worse than Tiger Woods is really relevant to the book, or why so many pages are spent discussing Tiger Woods at all. Moreover, McCullough regularly will tell some kind of right-wing horror story, and then try to loosely connect it to Obama by arguing that the story reflects where the nation is going under Obama.



3. Frankly, McCullough claims to be a Christian (and I certainly am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, “judge not” and all that…), but he has far too low a view of sin. This comes through in two especially clear ways.

a) His economic policy suggestions are about as libertarian as you can get. I’d cite something, but frankly, pretty much every suggestion he makes fits the description. I’ve never really understood how someone could believe the doctrine of original sin and believe at the same time that the best thing to do is to strip off all restraints, even if only in the economic realm, that sounds like the groundwork for a brutal nightmare of Hobbesean proportions.

b) His view of America is, well, naïve at best. He says “This would in time turn into one of the most grating realities for me to deal with personally. I don’t like wondering if the man who runs my nation doubts her goodness, regardless of what he has to say about her greatness.” (114) Then, later in the same chapter
America is, in large part, I believe, materially blessed because she has been spiritually blessed. God has prospered her for the good things she has done, and He has done so far longer than perhaps anyone thought He would have. No superpower has ever dared to use its might for greater good than America. No nation has brought more economic, spiritual, and legal freedoms to people on earth than America. No one has liberated people from more oppression than America. An no nation stands ready to help when others are in need the way America does… America defines its legal liberties as being from God Himself. I believe that this simple recognition of God’s authority has ultimately been an umbrella of blessing to those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves America. May this ever be! (116-117)
This seems to be at odds with McCullough’s explicit declaration of belief in pervasive human sin (169-170). Either people are sinners, and therefore a nation governed by the people is a sinful one, or the nation is a good nation and its citizens are virtuous. You can be an Augustinian and put the nation in the sinful city of man, or you can be a modern idealist and put the state up on a pedestal, but you cannot do both.

(Of course America has done good things, and I certainly am grateful to be an American; I do think it’s the best shot at a nation that’s been made in history so far, but that’s not the same thing as saying that we’re God’s chosen people.)



4. At the end of the day, it’s unclear as to what exactly McCullough’s presentation of Obama is supposed to be. At times, Obama is a leftist ideologue, disconnected from the world and trying to impose (in a bumbling, inept way, given his lack of experience) the ideas in his head upon reality. Other times, Obama is ruthlessly pragmatic, steamrolling everyone and everything in the way on his endless quest for power. Of course, these are exactly the same criticisms that the Left had of Bush during his terms in office, so it’s only fair to hold the Right to the same standard: is he a Machiavellian manipulator of mankind? Or is he a disconnected dreamer? You don’t get to have it both ways.



So, with all these criticism, why does the book still get three stars? Because I have a rock solid rule: if a book is easy to read and somewhat enjoyable, it gets a minimum of three stars. And while I do not necessarily agree with everything McCullough says, his book was easy to read and not unpleasant to get through. Therefore, if I were to set that up as my standard and then not live up to it, why, I’d be no better than Obama.





Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.





View all my reviews



Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review: Three Victorian Detective Novels

Three Victorian Detective Novels: The Unknown Weapon/My Lady's Monkey/The Big Bow MysteryThree Victorian Detective Novels: The Unknown Weapon/My Lady's Monkey/The Big Bow Mystery by Andrew Forrester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I wasn't really sure how to rate this book. It's three short detective novels (not quite novellas) from the Victorian era. Both the novel and the detective story were fairly new (Poe had only recently published The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales), so it's probably not fair to hold them to too high a standard. I settled on 3 stars because of the way the stories fell, the first I thought was terrible (not because it had a female lead, but because the story was slow-paced); the second was better, but long and overly focused on class and station (Victorian, remember); and the third was actually pretty good, though the ending was... well, read it yourself.
(Side note: I was tempted to give it an extra star just because Goodreads turned "My Lady's Money" into "My Lady's Monkey", which frankly might have been a better book...)



View all my reviews