Thursday, May 31, 2012

Plato's "Laws": A Reflection

Image Detail
Plato's Cave
Despite having been assigned it in my Classical Political Thought class, I only in the past few days finished reading Plato's Laws (apologies to Dr. Walsh). Which is a bit unfortunate, since it's bloody fantastic.

I confess to having had a bit of a "meh" relationship with Plato in the past. I mean, the number of his dialogues that I've actually enjoyed (as opposed to just kind of thinking they're okay) is pretty small- basically the Ion and maybe bits of Epistle VII. Sure, I've read and discussed what are usually counted as his greatest works (Gorgias, Meno, Apology, and of course The Republic) and even taught them in class (I prefer teaching the Crito, since it's short and a quick read for the students). But this was the first book where Plato and I really clicked. It was the first one of his that I've read where I found myself wanting to read more, to find out where the argument was going, and to see what the next step in his argument would be. Part of the reason for this may have been a translation issue (I read the Penguin Classics translation of The Laws done by Trevor Saunders- an excellently done work with good footnotes and introductory summaries), and part of it may have been the fact that all the other times I've read Plato it was for class. I can't say for sure what the reason is, just that this has ended up being a book that I truly enjoyed reading and look forward to (someday) exposing to students.

The way I've regularly had The Laws explained to me is that it's Plato's admission of failure. In undergrad, it was covered in a Greek civilization course where the prof (for whom I have the deepest respect) suggested that Plato had given up on trying to get anyone to care about the virtuous philosophical life and turned his final hopes on getting them at least to be good because the law said they had to. In the aforementioned graduate course, the professor (for whom I also have the deepest respect) suggested that The Laws is more of an appendix to The Republic, wherein the "Philosopher Kings" who exist at the center of the ideal state in The Republic have withdrawn from society, leaving behind only the laws they crafted. (I suspect this view is traceable back to a philosopher named Eric Voegelin, for whom I have slightly less respect but whom I occasionally enjoy reading.)
Having finally read the book myself, I think I disagree bit with both of these position. Certainly it's true that Plato is issuing some kind of passionate call here- after all this was his last and longest work. But I think a better way to read The Laws is as a second shot at The Republic. In The Republic, Plato had argued that people ought to live virtuous lives within virtuous states. The same argument is at work here. But! In The Republic, when asked how such a state could ever come about, Plato gives a mix of reasons including (but not limited to): education, hard work, divine intervention, leadership by a philosophical elite, some form of natural selection, and a life of continually increasing and unrestrained virtue. In other words, all of the ways in which people expressly do not want to live. How does Plato argue his state will come about in The Laws? By playing games, drinking, a life free from all but the most moderate work load, and enough sex to keep the state populated. Same goals, different means. It's true that there are differences between The Republic and The Laws (perhaps most noticeable is the presence of families in The Laws which had been outlawed in The Republic in lieu of communal wives and children), but these differences are very much organizational differences rather than differences in the philosophical goal of virtue.
Such, at least, is my read on the relationship between The Republic and The Laws- they're not really two radically different books, they've just got two different audiences. In a sense, I think it could be argued that the former was written as a guide for the Philosopher Kings, while the latter was written for at least the Guardian class, if not for the rest of the citizen body...

The biggest major modern issue with The Laws (at least as of the writing of the translator's Introduction in 1970) is the question of whether or not Plato was a totalitarian. This goes back to a book by Karl Popper written in the 1930s called The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper argued that any philosophy that teaches moral absolutism will eventually lead to totalitarianism, since moral absolutes are non-negotiables. As someone who clearly believes in moral absolutes, Plato must therefore be a totalitarian. Variations on this theme have followed Popper, but all are loosely tied back into his original thesis.
The translator takes a fairly middle path through the book, pointing out places where Plato seems to be totalitarian, and places where he is fairly liberal in his outlook (the absolute equality of women, for example).

I think the problem is we're asking an anachronistic question. Were we to say to Plato "are you a totalitarian or not?" His reply would be "huh?" That is to say, no such category existed in the Ancient World. In one sense, all ancient societies were totalitarian. There was no distinction between the individual and the state. After all, an ancient would argue, states are made up of bodies of individuals. So when you do something wicked, that makes the state that much worse. And when you do something virtuous, that makes the state that much better. With that being the case, why wouldn't the state have the authority to regulate even the most minute details of daily life, should it be necessary for preserving the virtue and dignity of the society? This would not be seen as either repressive or intolerable. Really, the only two political categories of major concern to ancients in any meaningful sense were 1) who was allowed to participate? and 2) what was the goal of the government? Any combination of answers to these questions could be more or less "totalitarian" by modern standards, that simply wasn't something they were interested in.

And, this reflection is going on probably longer than it should. After all, I haven't even said much about the book itself. I think this might have to turn into at least one more post, if only to keep the length of things manageable...

So, the short version is: this is an excellent book that raises all kinds of great questions (and gives great answers) to questions like: what is the role of education in society and individual life? What should be the goal of legislation? Who watches the watchmen? (seriously, that's one of them) What is the role of the elderly in society? And so on...

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lovecraft on Whitman

Appantly, H.P. Lovecraft did not think much of Walt Whitman, as his "ode" to him shows:

Behold great Whitman, whose licentious line
Delights the rake, and warms the souls of swine;
Whose fever'd fancy shuns the measur'd pace,
And copies Ovid's filth without his grace.
In his rough brain a genius might have grown,
Had he not sought to play the brute alone;
But void of shame, he let his wit run wild,
And liv'd and wrote as Adam's bestial child.
Averse to culture, strange to humankind,
He never knew the pleasures of the mind.
Scorning the pure, the delicate, the clean,
His joys were sordid, and his morals mean.
Thro' his gross thoughts a native vigour ran,
From which he deem'd himself the perfect man:
But want of decency his rank decreas'd,
And sunk him to the level of the beast.
Would that his Muse had dy'd before her birth,
Nor spread such foul corruption o'er the earth.
-Fragment on Whitman (~1912)

"Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight" by Rose Hartwick Thorpe

"O'er her hangs the great dark bell"
O'er her hangs the great dark bell;

I heard this in a sermon preached on the first chapter of Revelation. Why is it awesome? Cromwell!

England’s sun was slowly setting oe’r the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day;
And its last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair,–
He with steps so slow and weary; she with sunny, floating hair;
He with bowed head, sad and thoughtful, she, with lips all cold and white,
Struggling to keep back the murmur, “Curfew must not ring to-night!”

“Sexton,” Bessie’s white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old,
With its walls so tall and gloomy, moss-grown walls dark, damp and cold,–
“I’ve a lover in the prison, doomed this very night to die
At the ringing of the curfew, and no earthly help is nigh.
Cromwell will not come till sunset;” and her lips grew strangely white,
As she spoke in husky whispers, “Curfew must not ring to-night!”

"Curfew bell must ring to-night"
"Now I'm old, i will not miss it. Curfew bell must ring to-night!"
 “Bessie,” calmly spoke the sexton (every word pierced her young heart
Like a gleaming death-winged arrow, like a deadly poisoned dart),
“Long, long years I’ve rung the curfew from that gloomy, shadowed tower;
Every evening, just at sunset, it has tolled the twilight hour.
I have done my duty ever, tried to do it just and right:
Now I’m old, I will not miss it. Curfew bell must ring to-night!”

Wild her eyes and pale her features, stern and white her thoughtful brow,
As within her secret bosom, Bessie made a solemn vow.
She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh,
“At the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”
And her breath came fast and faster, and her eyes grew large and bright;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. “Curfew must not ring to-night!”

She with quick step bounded forward, sprang within the old church-door,
Left the old man coming slowly, paths he’d trod so oft before.
Not one moment paused the maiden, But with eye and cheek aglow,
Staggered up the gloomy tower, Where the bell swung to and fro;
As she climbed the slimy ladder, On which fell no ray of light,
Upward still, her pale lips saying, “Curfew shall not ring to-night!”

She has reached the topmost ladder, o’er her hangs the great dark bell;
Awful is the gloom beneath her, like the pathway down to hell.
See! the ponderous tongue is swinging; ’tis the hour of curfew now,
And the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath, and paled her brow.
Shall she let it ring? No, never! Her eyes flash with sudden light,
As she springs, and grasps it firmly: “Curfew shall not ring to-night!”

Out she swung,– far out. The city Seemed a speck of light below,–
There twixt heaven and earth suspended, As the bell swung to and fro.
And the sexton at the bell-rope, old and deaf, heard not the bell,
Sadly thought that twilight curfew rang young Basil’s funeral knell.
“Still the maiden, clinging firmly, quivering lip and fair face white,
Stilled her frightened heart’s wild throbbing: “Curfew shall not ring tonight!”

It was o’er, the bell ceased swaying; and the maiden stepped once more
Firmly on the damp old ladder, where, for hundred years before,
Human foot had not been planted. The brave deed that she had done
Should be told long ages after. As the rays of setting sun
Light the sky with golden beauty, aged sires, with heads of white,
Tell the children why the curfew did not ring that one sad night.

O’er the distant hills comes Cromwell. Bessie sees him; and her brow,
Lately white with sickening horror, has no anxious traces now.
At his feet she tells her story, shows her hands, all bruised and torn;
And her sweet young face, still haggard, with the anguish it had worn,
Touched his heart with sudden pity, lit his eyes with misty light.
“Go! your lover lives,” said Cromwell. “Curfew shall not ring to-night!”

Wide they flung the massive portals, led the prisoner forth to die,
Wide they flung the massive portals, led the prisoner forth to die,
Wide they flung the massive portals, led the prisoner forth to die,
All his bright young life before him. Neath the darkening English sky,
Bessie came, with flying footsteps, eyes aglow with lovelight sweet;
Kneeling on the turf beside him, laid his pardon at his feet.
In his brave, strong arms he clasped her, kissed the face upturned and white,
Whispered, “Darling, you have saved me, curfew will not ring to-night.”

Monday, May 28, 2012

Old School Country: The Death of the Balladeers

"So Long" to a style of country music...

The end of the 1960s was a time of transition in Country music. As mentioned in an earlier post, Country had been shaped by Rock and Roll through the 1950s and early 1960s as musicians like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr. embraced the methods and intonations of rock music. A later generation would rebel against this influence and attempt to get back to the older style (which will be the subject of the next post in this series), but in doing so would only reinforce the influence of rock- after all, you don't rebel against something that you think has no effect on you.
In between these two movements (rock influence in the 1950s and rebellion against that influence in the 1970s), one of the major original influences on and streams within country music died off as a major national sub-genre: that of Western music. "Western" music (still a part of the title of the genre of "country western music") was a mix of songs by and about cowboys and ballads. The end of the 1960s saw the collapse of nation interest in these two kinds of music. Though there are still Western singers today, they do not have anything more than regional following.

Of the balladeers, Johnny Horton has had the most staying power, with his songs being covered regularly by contemporary artists. His biggest hit told the story of the battle of New Orleans. Also, the video is freaking trippy, and apparently channels West Side Story:

Sink the Bismark appeal to World War II veterans, and popularized a relatively unknown-to-Americans (but major!) battle of the war:

Horton's song North to Alaska was the movie tie-in song for a John Wayne picture of the same title:

Much more famous than Johnny Horton was Marty Robbins, who could play numerous instruments and regularly made both the country and pop charts. (He was also a NASCAR driver, though that's less relevant.) El Paso topped both charts and remained Robbins' signature song (and was covered by the Grateful Dead):

His rendering of the battle of the Alamo was another tie-in for a John Wayne movie called The Alamo:

Finally, his song Big Iron has been covered numerous times:

Easily the most skilled of the balladeers (so much that he was dubbed "the Storyteller" by his peers) was Tom T. Hall. What he lacked in singing ability he more than made up in his talent). His biggest country hit was Faster Horses: The Cowboy and the Poet

Also popular, especially among college students, was I Like Beer:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Pair of Holy Land Discoveries

This article: A Pair of Holy Land Discoveries, is exciting for a couple of reasons. Not  the jewelry part, though I suppose that's fine too. What's key here is the discovery of portions of Nehemiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls:
For years, it was believed that the DSS fragments include pieces of every Biblical text with the exception of Nehemiah and Esther.
Well, we can reduce that to just Esther now. Torleif Elgvin of Evangelical Lutheran University College in Oslo has announced that he has discovered a piece of Nehemiah among some two dozen previously unpublished fragments.
Now, every book of the Old Testament except for Esther has at least partial external verification.
Why does this matter? Because it's a general rule of historiography that the more independent copies of a given text we have, the more we can trust the veracity of the source material. So, imagine that we dig up a copy of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars in Rome that dates back to the 2nd century AD. How do we know whether or not we can trust the information therein? What if whoever copied the work made a mistake? One way to verify the material is to compare it to other extant sources (does what Cicero says about the same issues match up?). Another way is to compare what is said in another copy of the same work discovered in a different place, say, Southern France. While the former method is more important (it gives you two witnesses instead of just one), the latter is useful in establishing what the original text actually said and proving that little tampering has occured over the years. The discovery that Nehemiah was at least in part included in the Dead Sea Scrolls gives us yet another source that verifies the content of the Scriptures.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Plato on Marriage

I dodged a bullet, but only by a few years...

A man must marry between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, reflecting that there is a sense in which nature has not only somehow endowed the human race with a degree of immortality, but also planted in us all a longing to achieve it, which we express in every way we can. One expression of that longing is the desire for fame and the wish not to lie nameless in the grave. Thus mankind is by nature a companion of eternity, and is linked to it, and will be linked to it, for ever. Mankind is immortal because it always leaves later generations behind to preserve its unity and identity for all time: it gets it share of immortality by means of procreation. It is never a holy thing voluntarily to deny oneself this prize, and he who neglects to take a wife and have children does precisely that. So if a man obeys the law he will be allowed to go his way without penalty, but if a man disobeys, and reaches the age of thirty-five without having married, he must pay a yearly fine (of a sum to be specified- that ought to stop him thinking that life as a bachelor is all cake and beer!), and be deprived too of all the honors which the younger people in the state pay to their elders on the appropriate occasions.
-Plato, The Laws, 721.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Berserker By Fred Saberhagen

I orignially picked this book because 1) it was a library download, and therefore free; 2) the snippet made it sound like it was well-read and decently presented (which it was- not always a guaranteed with audiobooks, especially older ones); 3) it looked long enough to keep me occupied for a while. This book certainly delievered all of those things. The bonus is that it is also quite interesting.

This book is a collection of short narratives of the "Berserker War", told by a psychic historian who reads minds across time and tells us what he finds there (though his voice is so non-present that it might as well not be there, really just giving us short reflective intros and conclusions). The war is between humanity and "Berserker machines", massively large and clever automations whose sole function is to destroy life in all its forms. Mankind, being a particularly clever and resiliant form, quickly tops the list of Berserker targets.

As with most short story collections, some of these are quite good, some much less so. What is especially interesting about these stories (in addition to the normal technological aspects of any science fiction book) is that Saberhagen uses this comabt between "life and death" (as we are repeatedly reminded) to illuminate and comment on human nature. How man reacts with death constantly looming over his head shows something about him that is not otherwise visible. Each story explores a different aspect of this nature. Everything from courage to humor to sacrifice to, well, there's a lot of stories here. Each time humanity defeats the Berserker, it comes back with a different tactic. What at the beginning were massive planet-destroying machines become individual assassins; and when individual assassination fails, psychological warfare is embraced. And so on.

Interestingly, Saberhagen's strength as a writer is not always so much his ability to string words together (though he's solid enough when it comes to that- not great, just solid) as it is his ability to tell already familiar stories in a new setting with unique twists. For example, the climax of the book is a retelling of the Battle of Lepanto. Or, what I think is the most interesting and well-done story in the book, is the story of Orpheus juiced up with technology and a truly chilling version of hell.

Overall, this is a well done and interesting series. The few stories in it which are less interesting don't really drag it down enough to matter. This is just good solid science fiction doing what science fiction should do.

Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dosteivsky

This is my first real exposure to 19th century Russian literature. I've had a good deal of the 20th century Soviet stuff (thank you Dr. Sigalov!), which two things together made my plowing through The Brothers Karamazov especially interesting. On the one hand, I wasn't burdened by knowledge of Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, or the other old school Russian guys; on the other hand, I know something of how the story ends. Which kind of made it a lot like reading the Bible in reverse order (that's right, I went there). The New Testament being in one sense the story of "hey folks, you had your chance and missed it. Not only did you miss it, but you actively messed up big time- instead of grasping onto the offered salvation, you killed the one guy who could was sent to save you." (Good news for us that that's how he saved us!) The Old Testament, then, being the promise and hope that something big is coming, that will involve either judgment or blessing or both, if only the people are paying attention. In the same way, The Brothers Karamazov is full of the sense of hope and promise that the Russian people are standing on the edge of something great- though whether that great thing will be judgment or blessing will depend on them and what they do with the opportunity when it arrives. The literature produced under the Soviet Union (e.g. Pasternak, Zamyatin, Platonov, Bulgakov) is the New Testament-ish message that the Russians screwed up big time...

Anyway, enough religious stuff, on to the review!

A word on the translation: I asked some of my friends (who know more about this stuff) which was the best to read, and the universal answer was the Pevear/Volokhonsky one. For what it's worth, it was readable and lucid, with excellent notes.

Nominally, this book is a murder mystery. Who killed Fyodor Pavlovich? All signs point to his son Dmitri, but his other sons Ivan and Alyosha (Alexi) aren't convinced...
Most of the book has nothing to do with the nominal plot. Instead, it's a rambling, meandering telling of a brief period of the lives of the Karamazov family by an unnamed narrator who not only sees what they do, but tells us how they think and live. Everything from a private conversation between the Christ-like Elder and Alyosha to the thoughts of Ivan as he struggles with the devil (no mean feat for a professed atheist!).There are asides and jokes and reflections on the meaning of existence, as well as fantastic action scenes (Alyosha's first encounter with the children is my favorite) and enough good natured fun to balance out the occasionally despairing tone.

The three high points (I think, again- this is my first time through) are: the meeting of the Karamazovs with the Elder Zosima; the story of the Grand Inquisitor by Ivan as told to Alyosha; and the struggle between Ivan and the devil (or Ivan and his own mind, if you don't believe in the devil). Somewhat evenly spaced through the book, these three events set the tone and raise the major issues discussed: namely, how will Russia in general and individuals in particular respond to the changing world, a world increasingly different from the ways and traditions of the past. What is the place for faith, God, reason, science, etc in this new world? What will the next generation be like, will it have been too corrupted by the decadent old one? All these questions and more are raised and discussed with honesty, humor, and a mix of hope and despair over the answers.

This book is one that I hope to come back to someday, it's full of humor, philosophy, religion, and character. All the stuff that makes for a great read. My biggest failure in reading the book is that I read it at the beginning of summer, and not deep in the heart of winter. So I'm not sure I always got the full Russian "feel" that I should have...

Also, Kolya rocks!

Coda: There's a movie version from the sixties starring... Yul Brynner and William Shatner! I have to see this!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer Reads for Hipsters (or others just looking for a good book)

If you're looking for something to read this summer, but are just too darn cool to read something off the "best-sellers" rack at Barnes and Noble, I've got just what you need. By stealing an idea from my very own domesticated harpy, I've decided to put up a list of book recommendations that you're unlikely to run into anywhere else. Frankly though, you should start with her list, since most of those are books we've both enjoyed. I especially recommend:
Little Britches
Ender's Game
On Writing
World War Z
All Creatures Great and Small
The Book of the Dun Cow

Feel free to read either the ones off of her list or the ones off of mine below and tell all your friends that you read them before they were popular. Or, in the case of many of these books, years after...


The Talisman by Stephen King (and Peter Straub, but, let's face it, no one cares about Peter Straub).

What it is: The story of a boy trying to save his mother from his wicked uncle by going on a cross country (and cross dimensional) question for the Talisman, which can heal all diseases.
Why you should read it: This is quite simply a delightful story in the best tradition of fairy tales and adventure stories. That is, real fairy tales, where bad things happen and happy endings have to be fought for...
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "I'm reading this as an exploration of the difficult questions of adolescence and coming-of-age through loss, hardship, family, and self-sacrifice. Also, every once in a while I like to read the tripe embraced by the masses, just to keep my finger on the pulse of the common man."
Bonus reason to read it: If you finish it and love it, there's a sequel that is very nearly as good called Black House.
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

What it is: The story of a villian, a prince, a princess, time, and the Golux. Can the prince rescue the princess from the villian? Mabe, but only with the help of the Golux and a maiden who cries tears of gemstones...
Why you should read it: The villian, of course! This particular villian ("the Duke") wears both an eyepatch and a monocle (not on the same eye). He also has a theory of humanity: "We all have our flaws... mine is being wicked."
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "As all educated people know (from Wikipedia), James Thurber was one of America's most eminent humourists [it's very important that you use the British spelling- be sure to let your friends know that you did so if this is a verbal rather than electronic conversation], in the tradition of Mark Twain. I'm not reading it because it's humourous as such, it's really more that I want to understand the idea of the absurd in early 20th century America. Any delight I get out of the book is strictly incidental, and will undoubtedly pass."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: The Works of Justin Martyr

A Rather Boring Note on the Edition: The version of the Works of Justin Martyr I read is that found in the 19th century collection of Ante-Nicene Fathers (recently reprinted by Hendrickson), except Dialogue with Trypho, which I read in this edition put out by Catholic University Press. Consequently, my review of the Dialogue will be of the other edition, while my reviews of Justin's other works will be of the Ante-Nicene Fathers edition. A totally uninteresting note to any but the academics out there, no doubt...

The edition of the works of Justin Martyr I read (see above) included the following:
-The First Apology
-The Second Apology
-Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew
-The Discourse to the Greeks
-Hortatory Address to the Greeks
-On the Sole Government of God
-On the Resurrection, Fragments
-Other Fragments
As the editor points out, it is very likely that only the first three are genuinely the writings of Justin Martyr, so I'll keep the bulk of my reviews focused on those.

The First Apology
There are really two streams of argument that run parallel (and occasionally cross each other) in this discourse. The first is that Christians are not the lawbreaking atheists that they are often called by the government, and consequently they should not be executed. Christians, after all, regularly encourage each other to obey the civil law ("whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men", 168) and refuse kill children (172). In fact, if the Roman government was really honest, it would see that Christians in fact are quite law-abiding and virtuous, and that their persecution is at heart deeply irrational.
This leads into the second point of the Apology: that Christianity is the true religion because it alone embodies true Reason. Justin defends this in two ways. First, he points to Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Thus, Jesus is the summation of the Jewish religion, the promised Messiah and Saviour. Second, Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is true in Greek philosophy (which was really lifted from the Jews in any case).
Justin ends with a description of the Christian worship service (reading of Scripture, the sermon, prayer, the Lord's Supper, and the offering), including the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper).

Justin's conclusion:
If these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies. For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God, if you continue in your injustice; and we ourselves will invite you to do that which is pleasing to God. (186)
The Second Apology
In this Apology, Justin again notes the injustice of persecuting Christians, specifically the persecution in the city of Rome itself. This time, he argues that it is wrong to persecute Christians not only because they are obedient to the law, but because they cling to Christ, who is Reason embodied.
Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. (191)
Everyone agrees that it was wrong to kill Socrates (who had a little bit of the truth), how wrong then must it have been to kill Jesus, who was Truth itself? And further how wrong must it be to kill Christians, who bear the word of this Truth within themselves?
Not that Christians are afraid of death- quite the contrary. Christians are so unafraid of death that the threat of it cannot force them to give up their allegiance to the Word of God.
Justin's conclusion:
Henceforth we shall be silent, having done as much as we could, and having added the prayer that all men everywhere may be counted worthy of the truth. and would that you also, in a manner becoming piety and philosophy, would for your own sakes judge justly! (193)
Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew
This work is written in the Platonic style (which is appropriate, given that Justin started out as a Platonist) as a letter to a friend of his relating a dialogue he had with a Jew named Trypho. In the course of the dialogue, we see
1) Justin's conversion narrative (which is one of the best from the ancient world).
2) Justin's thoughts on philosophy and the relationship between faith and reason.
3) The early church's apologetic attempt to reach out to the Jews.
4) The early church's doctrine of Scripture.
5) The early church's Christology.
6) And probably several other things that I'm missing, since I read it fairly quickly.
Most important, however, is the theme that runs through the dialogue: Christianity is truth. That is why philosophy provides the context for the dialogue, then, as well as now, philosophy has been the primary place of the search for truth. As Justin says (echoing Plato)
But what greater deed... could one perform than to prove that reason rules all, and that one who rules reason and is sustained by it can look down upon the errors and undertakings of others, and see that they do nothing reasonable or pleasing to God. Man cannot have prudence without philosophy and straight thinking. Thus, every man should be devoted to philosophy and should consider it the greatest and most noble pursuit; all other pursuits are only of second- or third-rate value, unless they are connected with philosophy. Then they are of some value and should be approved; if they are devoid of philosophy and not connected with it in any way, they then become base and coarse pursuits to those who practice them."
Dialogue with Trypho is Justin's attempt to prove to the Jews that Christ is the truth, just as his Apologies are his attempts to prove the same to the Greeks. Thus, Justin concludes the dialogue
I can wish you no greater blessing than this, gentlemen, that, realizing that wisdom is given to every man through this way [the Gospel], you also may one day come to believe entirely as we do that Jesus is the Christ of God.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover by Kinky Friedman

I'm a newcomer to mystery in general (other than a brief fling through the Sherlock Holmes stories in high school), so I'm never really sure how to judge a mystery. My fallback is: did it entertain me? This is a broad enough category (I think) that it leaves lots of wiggle room for the author in terms of balance between plot, narrative, character development, and, well, everything else and lots more wiggle room for me as a reader.
So that being said, I think this book is a solid 3.5 stars. Friedman tells a good story in the sense that the plot moves along quite nicely, his descriptions are surprisingly clear (usually, sometimes things get lost in the lingo), and he does manage to successfully pull off a few surprises here and there. His humor is really where the book sometimes lags not so much because it isn't funny at times, but because it isn't funny consistently. Sometimes I found myself laughing out loud, and sometimes the jokes just fell flat (possibly because they haven't aged all that well- 1996 until now is a long time for humor to survive, so maybe he should get credit for being so readable after so long?).

The plot is (loosely) that Kinky is hired to find the missing husband of a beautiful woman, just like every other mystery ever. Unlike every other mystery ever, he keeps getting distracted by his Irish friend, who is being harassed by aliens. And, well, that's all that can be said without spoilers.

Overall, a worthwhile read, if you like mysteries and mid-90s humor (which I do). A sample passage:
On this day in 1953 Hank Williams had died somewhere along the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. Whether death is indeed preferable to doing a show in Canton, Ohio, has been a much disputed philosophical question ever since. (1)
Perhaps a more representative passage:
It is a rather tedious fact of life that most of us who are confined to the human condition spend a great deal of time wishing to be something we're not. Or someone we're not. The proctologist, scrupulously washing his hands before and after each patient, dreams of being Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The rock star, as he worries whether to leave the Porsche with valet parking, dreams of saving the rain forest. The bank teller dreams of embezzling a million dollars and moving to Costa Rica. the average Costa Rican dreams of moving to Akron, Ohio, and becoming a bank teller. The many people who lead anonymous little lives long for fame. The handful of people who've become truly trapped in the thing that fame is, invariably long for anonymity. As far as the rest of us go, we have to deal with so many a****les every day, we figure we probably should've been proctologists and at least get paid for it. (136)
A final benefit of reading this book: Friedman clearly loves him some mystery. He references Holmes, Marple, Whimsey, Wolfe, and numerous other great fictional detectives, throwing out references and lining plot points along with the action of the referenced works. So while Friedman may not be a great place to start reading mystery (some of the references went over my head), he will undoubtedly be a delight to those who know who most of those detectives are.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Blogging (Post) T4G: The Power of the Word

“The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.”
- Isaiah 40:8

In his talk "The Power of the Articulated Gospel," (available here in audio and here in video), Al Mohler reminds pastors that it is their responsibility not only to publicly display the Gospel in their actions (though that is a fine thing to do), but to share it in their words. The power of the Gospel to transform lives, the tool by which the Holy Spirit effects conversion in the heart of a believer, is, at the end of the day, the spoken Word. It is only through the declaration of the forgiveness of sins accomplished by Christ on the cross that the Gospel advances, grows, and spreads from the dark parts of our soul to the corners of the earth.

This was yet another convicting talk for me, since I am regularly in contact with those who do not believe the Gospel. Perhaps less so now than in the past, but in contact nonetheless. I have far too often failed to articulate the Gospel to strangers and friends alike, and relied overly much on "just being a friend to them" or "showing in actions (implied: but not in words) what Jesus has done for me", all the while telling myself and others that I was hoping they would ask why I act the way I do, even as my much deeper hope was that they would not.

Why is this the case? Why do I so regularly doubt the power of the Word that saved me and that I has saved so many of my brothers and sisters? What should I do about it? Hopefully reflecting on this will help me modify my life accordingly...

Why do I doubt?
Ultimately of course, the answer is "sin." But within that broad category, there are specific sins that keep me from trusting in and sharing the Gospel.
  • Fear. Not so much fear that they'll look down on me (I am, sadly, arrogant enough that I rarely fear anything like that: who would look down on someone as awesome as I am? I know, I know, my wife's working on it), as fear that the Gospel won't work. If I never share the Gospel with them, they'll never reject it, and we can both go on our merry way. If I do share the Gospel with them and they intentionally say "no", well, then I've just sent someone to hell. Of course theologically I know that's not how it works, but it doesn't change my subjective perspective.
  • Pride. This one's kind of cheating, since it's the root of all sins and therefore must be what's driving my failure to articulate the Gospel. And yet, there is a kind of pride inherent in waiting on someone to ask me why I act the way I do, instead of just telling them. "Oh, you noticed that I make it a point to go to church every Sunday? That I just give away x% of my income, without expecting a return? That I drive a little old lady around when she needs it? Of course I'd be happy to tell you what's happened to me and why I do all those things that you see in my life." Even before sharing the Gospel, there's the subtle (even if only internal and, well, unartiuclated) idea that it is somehow about me. By forcing them to ask, I've shifted the attention even further off of God and put it on myself.
  • Laziness. Sharing the Gospel is hard work. It's easier not to. I don't like hard work, ipso facto I don't share the Gospel much. I could write more about this but, hey, I'll get around to it later. Maybe. Unless the game is on...
What should I do about this?
Fortunately, even in all of this sin God has provided the answer: believe the Gospel more.
Three things to remember:
  • God is ultimately the one who does the work. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus has paid for the sins of all who would repent and believe in him. I am not a part of that equation when it comes to someone else, at the very most I am a facilitator, and even that is only a limited and temporary role. Rather than leading me to inaction, this should set me free to share the Gospel without fear.
  • God has paid for my sin, and done all of the work necessary for my salvation. This should inspire me to obey him in all ways, including in telling others about him. How awful would it be (or, you know, "is it") for me to refuse to tell others and so withhold the good news that someone else did not withhold from me? I am saved only because someone shared the Gospel with me, therefore I should share it with others.
  • This is the only thing that will last into eternity. Someday, Christ will return and the world as it is will be re-created, and we are told explicitly that all things will be made new. Our bodies, our efforts, government, nature, relationships, the physical world, all of these things someday will melt away in the presence of the returning Christ and be replaced by an entire creation born again. The bridge between us now and us then, between our current bodies and our resurrection bodies, between the old earth and the new earth, is the Gospel, and only the Gospel. I might serve my own sin and their sinful comfort by not sharing the Gospel with someone, but it will only be a temporary service. Christians are witnesses to the coming eternity, and woe to us if we intentionally withhold that witness.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blogging (Post) T4G: Proper Care and Feeding of Pastors


The wife and I didn't make it to T4G, so we've been listening through some of the talks occasionally as part of our devotions. The main session talk by C.J. Mahaney (available here as audio and here as video) was called "When A Pastor Loses Heart" and was all about how to be encouraged (as a pastor) when you lose heart. Of course, it was also pretty encouraging to those of us who are not pastors and hope that we're never cursed with the blessing of that particular office. Heck, I'm not even the kind of person who struggles with discouragement (I'm far too awesome for that), and I was encouraged, so clearly it was  a worthwhile talk.

As I was listening, one of the things that I kept wondering was: how do I encourage my pastors? Or, at the very least, how do I keep from discouraging them, however unintentionally? The more I thought about it, the more I realized this is probably an area that I need to give more attention to in my own life. On the one hand, I'm not a terribly encouraging person- I'm more likely to laugh at you if you trip and fall in front of me (and help you up, of course, but I'll be laughing while I do it) than I am to sympathize and encourage you to do better next time. On the other hand, I go to a big enough church that functionally I never have more than a ten to fifteen second conversation with any given pastor every few weeks. So I've got sort-of a double-whammy of a handicap when it comes to being an encouragement to my pastors.

What, then, should I be doing to be an encouragement to a pastor who might otherwise be discouraged? What are ways that I can encourage my pastor in and be a faithful servant to him in his ministry?

1) Don't judge your pastor in relation to "celebrity" preachers. One of the dangers of the rise of mass culture (as discussed by Carl Truman both on his blog and at T4G) is the availability of truly excellent preaching on a regular basis. With a click of a button I can download decades worth of  the sermons of John Piper, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll, or, well, whoever, and listen to them as often as I like. (In case you're wondering: early Piper/early Dever is good for the gym at 20-30 minutes, just the right amount of time for a go on the treadmill; later Piper is good for yard work at 30-45 minutes; and later Dever and Driscoll are good for longer drives being mostly an hour or more.) The problem is, these pastors are not only sharing the Gospel, they are especially gifted speakers. My pastor may not be so gifted a speaker. That doesn't lessen the value of the Gospel he shares; if anything, it should make it more precious. The fact that a poor communicator can still share the Gospel and (hopefully) see fruit in conversion should remind us that the skill and person of the pastor are not the foundation of our faith.

This means that practically, we should be very careful not to assume that we have some sort of "right" to the best of pastors. We should not hold up these well-known "celebrity" pastors and use their ability as the standard of judgment. Rather, we should be content with a pastor who regularly and clearly articulates the Gospel to us. That is the food we need, not the titillation of pleasing speech.

2) Don't treat your pastor as a servant. He is there to serve you, of course, but do remember that as a pastor, that service is 1) preaching the Gospel; 2) administering the sacraments; 3) disciplining you as needed. Anything he does beyond that is nice, but not specifically Biblically mandated. So remember that when the pastor takes time to grab lunch with you, asks you how things are going, or goes out of his way to bless you, all of that is something he does not because he has to, but because he wants to.

3) Do serve your pastor well. And I think (though not being a pastor I could be wrong about this) that the best ways to serve your pastor well are to:
  • Fight your own sin. Not just avoiding discipline (though that will certainly serve your pastor as well), but also growing in holiness is a regular encouragement to pastors.
  • Serve others. One of the issues that my church is struggling with is the fact that we've nearly doubled our membership (since I joined six years ago), without doubling the number of volunteers for service opportunities. This is most definitely not serving the pastor well, since the problems caused by the gap get back to him. Serving others of course goes beyond simple volunteering, and includes regular fellowship, accountability, building and maintaining relationships in the church, etc.
And, well, that's what I've got so far. Like I said, this isn't something I've given a whole lot of thought to, and as a result I don't know that I've been any kind of encouragement to my pastor other than by the default setting of not needing discipline or public reprimand. Which I suppose is a start, but hardly the place to end.

Book Review: "Swipe" by Evan Angler

This is a post-post-apocalyptic novel (really the beginning of a series; [sigh] doesn't anyone write stand-alone sci-fi anymore?) set in a world that has been torn apart by war and now is being rebuilt by the "American Union" and its European Counterpart under the leadership of two charismatic generals. The foundation of this rebuilt world is the "mark", which everyone receives on the arm at their coming of age, and which enables one to enter into civic life (getting a job, voting, owning property, etc). Logan Langly is nearly ready to be marked himself, when he receives a message from a mysterious subversive group known as "the Dust", who want Logan to join their markless ranks. With the help of the new girl at school, the book is about Logan's attempt to figure out just what the heck is going on, anyway.

This book is... not nearly as terrible as I'd thought it would be. In fact, it was fun in its own way. Having grown up during the pinnacle of the bad eschatology craze within American Christianity (and I don't mean just Left Behind, though I do mean at least that), I was fully expecting this to be yet another poor interpretation of the book of Revelation exploded out into a poorly written political thriller. And to be fair, given that there are to be at least two books in this series, it may very well end up being that.
Yet, this book really didn't meet my expectations, and I mean that in a very good way. It follows through with its claim to be sci-fi, focusing on the technological marvels and new living conditions of the near-ish future. Everyone has a "tablet", through which information and communication are facilitated; almost all of life is automated (facilitating the saturation of the "mark" into all of society- you have to have a mark to activate everything from bank accounts to doors); and the whole world seems to be digitized. Books are a thing of the past (shudder), except where they moulder forgotten in warehouses. While some of the ideas are somewhat simple, fulls marks to the author for keeping the focus on the sci-fi and mystery aspects of the work and leaving the theological stuff in the background. (In fact, there are only a few specifically religious references throughout, and the closest thing to a Biblical statement is the nature of the mark, which according to the picture on the cover is composed of sets of three numbers which all add up to six...)
I note this not because I don't like theology- I happen to like it quite a lot. I don't, however, like it when people write books with the intention of  forcing their theology down my throat. Evan Angler does an excellent job of telling a story, and letting his theology express itself through characters and actions, not through thinly veiled credos and screeds.

So, long review short: this book is interesting and accessible. I'd highly recommend it to lower-level readers looking for an interesting (if simple) read. It's not great literature by any stretch, but it's certainly not trash either.

This book was provided free by Thomas Nelson publishers on the condition that I write a review. I was neither requested nor required to write a positive one.