Authorayjay

good times in Waco

I live in Waco, Texas, which is a relatively small city and a relatively poor city, a city with its share of problems both historic and current — but also a place where some pretty cool things are happening.  Last night, for instance, my wife Teri and I enjoyed an early Valentine’s Day dinner at Balcones Distillery — maker of some of the finest and most celebrated spirits in the world — where the distillers had teamed up with Milo Biscuit Company, a local food truck and caterer, to create a lovely dinner in the tasting room.

Each course came paired with a cocktail or a straight Balcones spirit — their Baby Blue corn whisky, their classic Texas single Malt, their wonderful rum-like spirit called Rumble.

It was quite peculiar having a fine dinner without wine! — and I probably wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but the pairings were really well-chosen and the food was delicious, right there next to some of the aging barrels.

I had fresh Gulf snapper, perfectly cooked, and Teri had duck breast, also perfectly cooked, but perhaps the best taste of the evening was the cheese course, a Delice de Bourgogne paired with a whisky aged in rum barrels (not yet released to the public). It was truly memorable. I meant to take pictures of the food but was too occupied with eating it until I got to dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with rose cream and raspberries.

And then when we were on our way out we were given a piece of salted caramel that the chef, Corey, had made with a touch of Balcones Brimstone, a whisky smoked with scrub oak. That was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

All in all, big fun here in Waco! Our hearty thanks to chef Corey and the rest of the crew.

 

What We’re Fighting For

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Phil Klay

dealing with lies

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists. This requires no particular courage. I think, in contrast, of those dissidents whose critical insistence on simple truth in plain language kept reality alive in the Kafkaesque world of totalitarianism. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik once said: “In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.” The price Michnik paid was years in prison. American journalists cannot risk a little access or a nasty tweet for the same essential civic duty?

— Andrew Sullivan: The Madness of King Donald. If this admirable and wholly proper strategy were to be widely followed, I predict that President Trump and his advisors and advocates will simply stop speaking to the press. Which would make somewhat more urgent the suggestion I moot in this little thought experiment.

productive smudging

“Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely; you can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.”

Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much?

New Atheist axioms

1) The progress of science will make religious belief less and less plausible; that is, science cannot develop in ways that would make religious belief seem more reasonable and attractive;

2) Nothing in the history of unbelief has any relevance to current disputes, because our knowledge today is absolutely secure in ways that our atheist predecessors’ was not.

the experience of free will 

I think it’s generally known that one wing of the New Atheism, led primarily by Jerry Coyne, has made the denial of free will a major cause. Well, so have Calvinists! (Just for somewhat different reasons.) I think all aspects of the Great Free Will Debate are illuminated by this wonderful passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial book on Pascal and the Jansenist controversy, God Owes Us Nothing:

The belief that everything is preordained by God is psychologically compatible with the belief that I am free in my actions. Personal freedom is an irresistible and elementary experience; it is not analyzable any further because of its elementary character. The former belief acts as a source of trust in life: God rules and orders everything, thus everything is directed toward a good outcome, even if we cannot know or see the cunning tactics of providence. This psychological compatibility proves doubtful when exposed to theological scrutiny, and the task is then to make a coherent, logically sound whole out of the two experiences.… The most elementary facts of experience – “I,” existence, freedom – once converted into theoretical concepts, tend to resist logical examination and are therefore threatened with a verdict of theoretical annihilation; indeed, they have on many occasions been denounced as figments of the imagination. Still, they do not vanish from experience; they stubbornly refuse to evaporate, all philosophers’ condemnations notwithstanding. To accept all-embracing providence without denying the irresistible experience of freedom is psychologically possible even for people who cannot be accused of having simply failed to learn their first lesson in logic; they do not necessarily feel mental discomfort because they believe in, or experience, both. But to unite both in a consistent “theory” seems hopeless, and when theologians ultimately admit that there is a “mystery” in combining providence and freedom, they do not claim to explain anything, but accept the inadequacy of “human reason.” Rationalists normally shrug off the idea of “mystery” (as distinct from something not yet known) as a verbal cover for simple illogicality. However, when people think of ultimate realities, the experience of mystery, which often includes a logical helplessness, may be intellectually more fruitful than rationalist self-confidence that simply cancels metaphysical questions, relying on doctrinal dogmas. To be sure, we have only one logic at our disposal but we are not sure how far its validity can extend when dealing with those ultimate realities.

theatrical memories

Recently, Teri and I have been watching both Victoria and The Crown — an interesting pair of experiences which I may say something about in a future post — and one of the pleasures of both series has been Alex Jennings, who in The Crown plays the oleaginous and embittered  Duke of Windsor (i.e., the abdicated Edward VIII), and in Victoria plays the oleaginous and manipulative King Leopold of Belgium.

All of which reminds me that I first saw Jennings in 1990, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck alongside David Threlfall’s Gregers Werle. It was a magnificent production, and one of the reasons I remember it is that Teri and I had an extremely intense argument about it on our walk back to our hotel in Bloomsbury. All I can remember about the debate is that she thought the production was weighted towards the perspective of one character and I thought it was weighted towards the perspective of the other — which suggests that it was actually an ideal theatrical endeavor, capable of producing very different reactions in equally intelligent and attentive viewers. Even now I remember with great vividness the set, and a handful of crucial scenes.

I had already seen Threlfall on TV, in his amazing performance as Leslie Titmuss in John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed — I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a working-class boy listening with passionate intensity to the radio and trying to mimic the BBC announcers’ intonations (in the days before the BBC thought it should represent the varieties of British speech patterns) — but Jennings was new to me, and was simply electric as Hjalmar. It’s so good to see him still at work.

The Christians of Nigeria

A terrifying and tragic story from the Spectator:

Nigerians have their own view as to what is really going on: a suspicion fuelled again as I leave one IDP camp at sunset and news comes in that another camp to the east has just been bombed by the Nigerian military, killing and maiming scores of people.

The army later apologises for this ‘error’.But the bigger picture is not about error. If the international community meant anything by its promises such as the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, then what is happening could not go on. But the international community is uninterested. Governments like ours are uninterested. The world’s media is uninterested.

At morning service in the city of Jos, the congregation sing and pray using the 19th-century hymnals and prayer books by which their faith was delivered. When we reach the plea to ‘Deliver us from the hands of our enemies’, the closely packed room hums with the literalness of the words. The Christians of Nigeria are alone. Even if we do not care about this, we ought to know.

A great many of the Christians so suffering are Anglicans. (There are more baptized Anglicans in Nigeria than anywhere in the world except England, and a far smaller percentage of those in England actually attend church.) I would like for my Catholic and Reformed friends who specialize in mocking and snickering at Anglicans to remember this.

judging judges

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Henri Nouwen’s Weakness Was His Strength

Initially Nouwen looks like a poster boy for activism. Climbing the ladder to the highest echelons of the ivy-covered ivory tower, jetting around the world as a conference speaker and lecturer, publishing books with prestigious New York houses, Nouwen was a high achiever. He relished the stage and often fell prey to its attendant trials of loneliness and overly sensitive self-awareness. But the arc of Nouwen’s whole life paints a different picture. Disillusioned with his successes, he sought what one evangelical pastor has described as the “liberation of ministry from the success syndrome.” For Nouwen, “the true task of life might be the task to live our life faithfully in communion with the Lord [rather] than to change it.”

After withdrawing from his teaching post at Harvard and moving to the Daybreak community in Toronto, Nouwen was given the task of caring for a 25-year-old epileptic patient named Adam Arnett, about whom Nouwen wrote his final book. In it, he describes what Adam taught him about the limits of activism. Caring for Adam, Nouwen had to slow down, to realize the futility of pushing Adam beyond his limits, to accept the inability of Adam to achieve anything. “I found myself beginning to understand a new language,” Nouwen wrote. It was the language of stillness, the language of simply being present to another. Nouwen learned what he had so often tried to teach others: that offering one’s wounded self to a needy other is achievement enough. It’s a lesson evangelicals might continue to learn from Nouwen too.

Wesley Hill

Drumpfengeworfenheit: The condition of finding oneself “thrown” into Donald Trump’s America.

Jeremy Begbie on Roger Lundin

 He cared about words – or better put, he cared for people through words: his students, colleagues and readers. That was why he labored so hard to find the right ones. That was why – with that memorable sidelong glance – he paused so often in conversation. That is why he spent hours and hours revising and re-editing his essays and books. In all the years I knew Roger I can honestly say I never remember him using words carelessly. He knew that careless words could hurt, maim and wound. In a culture deluged with half-thought out words, sloppy, hollowed-out language, he saw it as his calling to hone words full of care for others, full of the winsome generosity of God. And in the corridors of the academy, few things are needed more today. We academics revel in large words – to impress, to intimidate. He inspired us to use words with largesse. And that is a legacy beyond measure.

Jeremy Begbie. I know it is a stone-dead cliché, but I still can’t in any way truly believe that Roger is gone.

Holocaust

proposal for a Holocaust Memorial in London, by Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid Architects

Krazy Kat

Pope Francis and Donald Trump: the same man?

There’s a very unfortunate moment in Jason Horowitz’s account of the conflict between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta:

Now, suddenly, [Francis] is more politically isolated. The election of President Trump and the rise of far-right populists in Europe have ushered in an angrier era — and emboldened traditionalists inside the Vatican who sense that the once-impregnable pope could be vulnerable.

This is, quite simply, an utterly unwarranted slur on Catholic traditionalists. It’s not Francis’s opponents who resemble the “far-right populists in Europe” and the rather less politically consistent populist in the White House — it’s Francis himself.

Like Donald Trump, Francis makes dramatic and apparently extreme pronouncements which send the world into interpretative tizzies. When he says things like “Who am I to judge?” Catholics who support him effectively say that he should be taken “seriously but not literally” — just as Trump supporters say about their man. Both men generate massive, thick fogs of uncertainty.

Like Donald Trump, Francis cuts through political complications by issuing executive orders and blunt power grabs, as when he dismissed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and is seeking to replace him with a “papal delegate” under his own personal control, a move of questionable legality.

Like Donald Trump, Francis is an authoritarian populist: he bypasses institutional structures and governs by executive order, but believes that there can be nothing tyrannical about this because he is acting in the name of the people and is committed to “draining the swamp” of his institution’s internal corruption.

Francis and Trump may not agree about much else, but they agree about how to govern. A few years ago David Lebedoff wrote a book in which he argued that for all their political and religious differences, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were in effect “the same man.” This is equally, and far more troublingly, true of Pope Francis and Donald Trump.

“Where would we go?” 

I look at them and I see us, sitting in that strangely-lit room with the Immigration and Naturalization Service officers who processed us and to whom, I’m sure, we were an abstraction, and who didn’t tell us that the way we transliterated our last name was stupid and that people would forever after think it began with lower-case L and not an upper-case I. But I think about that room and the refugee cards they filled out, cards we still have to this day, and what would have happened if we too had been turned back.

Where would we have gone? We were people without a home, without a country. We had been stripped of our Soviet citizenship, we had sold everything to pay the four steep fines for having four citizenships stripped from us, and we certainly didn’t have enough money left over for four plane tickets back, back to a country we no longer belonged to and wouldn’t have us. After all that paperwork and waiting, where would we go?

Julia Ioffe

you know who you are

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? …

Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.

I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!

— Oliver Cromwell, speech dissolving Parliament, 20 April 1653

a lesson from France

Not content to expose [Eric Zemmour’s]  exaggerations and fabrications, their instinct — a deep one on the French left since the days of the Popular Front — is to denounce anything someone on the right says, so as not to give comfort to the enemy. Their thinking is: if it is four o’clock, and Éric Zemmour says it is four o’clock, it is our duty to say it is three o’clock. Which guarantees that twice a day he will be able to look at his sympathizers and say, “You see what I mean?”

Mark Lilla

idolatry 

Christians have a word to describe the worship of that which is not God: idolatry. Idolatry, of course, can be a quite impressive form of devotion. The only difficulty is idolaters usually end up killing someone for calling into question their “god.”

Trump’s inauguration address counts as a stunning example of idolatry. His statement — “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country we will recover loyalty to each other” — is clearly a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.

Christians believe that only God demands “total allegiance.” Otherwise we run the risk, as Trump exemplifies, of making an idol out of some human enterprise.

Stanley Hauerwas

Doomsdumb

Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists – The New York Times. It moves! All by itself! (I wrote about this little piece of ridiculousness last year.)

UPDATE: Here’s another example:

The way journalists try to get us to take this ridiculous ongoing superannuated publicity stunt seriously is by attributing agency to a wholly metaphorical clock: It moves closer to midnight; it now reads 2.5 minutes to midnight. As though it is operating in complete independence of human judgment and merely bears witness to the horrible truth. As I wrote last year, “no actual science goes into the decision of where to place the hands of the clock. The scientists who make the decision have no particular expertise in geopolitical strategy, military and political risk assessment, or even climatology (relevant since they incorporate climate change into their assessment). They just read a bunch of stuff and take their own emotional temperature.”

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