Tagme

seasons

This is a terrific post by Matt Thomas on living by the seasons: “when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.” Matt makes me want to be governed more by the seasons, but my thoughts and moods are linked much more tightly to the rhythms of the academic year. Which are of course not unrelated to the seasons: the practice of dismissing children from school for the summer is a throwback to an agricultural world in which, during the growing season, all hands were needed on the farm. But the academic rhythms are their own thing now, and last year, when I had a sabbatical, I was genuinely disoriented when August came around and I had no classes to prepare for, no syllabuses to write, no instructor’s copies of books to pick up. I certainly enjoyed my time to write, but I have to say that it felt good this August to feel those old patterns reassert their old claim on me. Because the academic seasons have been my seasons for more than half-a-century now.

enough already

I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.

As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.

We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.

The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.

Malcolm is ten years old today

The BCP and me

I’m pretty happy with my biography of the Book of Common Prayer. It has some typos and other embarrassing errors that didn’t get caught in the editing process, and I wish I could fix those; but overall, I think I did a decent job of capturing a very complex history in a very small compass, and to make it an interesting story too. The book got largely positive reviews and has sold well, by my standards anyway, and by those of the series of which it’s a part. So all that’s good.

There’s one thing that troubles me, though: Anglicans don’t seem to care about the book at all. Embarrassing admission: when I wrote the book I thought one of the fringe benefits would be the opportunity to go around to churches, and maybe seminaries, to celebrate the inheritance of the BCP and discuss its possible future. But unless I am forgetting something, not one church, or seminary, or diocese — well, let’s be honest here, no one at all has asked my to talk about this book (though I often get asked to talk about other matters, and especially about, well, you know who).

For a while this flummoxed me, but I think I’ve figured it out. Here are my suspicions, laid out in highly general terms:

  • Liberal Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because all of those books embody sexist language for God, a heterosexual definition of marriage, exclusivist soteriology, and many other retrograde ideas from which they hope to escape.
  • Anglo-Catholics aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because those books are all deeply implicated in Reformational theologies that the A-Cs would like to ignore or overcome.
  • Evangelical Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because they want to reach people they think might be alienated or confused by formal language and liturgy.

So basically, within the Anglican world there’s a very limited constituency for my book — and, I fear, for the Book of Common Prayer itself. At least, that’s my best guess. I hope that I am wrong — especially about the BCP. Because it is a great storehouse of wisdom and comfort, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to be a Christian without it; and I think there may be more than a few others like me in that respect.

Virtually every writer I know has [a ritual]. One claims to sharpen half a dozen pencils. Another gulps down a can of beer (never mind the hour). A third meditates. (The sound of chanting from up in her lair gets the kids scrambling in embarrassment off to the school bus.) Another needs espresso. His cousin requires Darjeeling straight from India. And one goes outdoors and marches for a while to the beat of a different drummer — marches, literally, around the backyard…. I don’t think most writers’ rituals are mere affectations. I think they’re quite necessary. The writer needs the right room, crowded or bare; the right drink, soft or mildly spiked; the right ambient noise or a dose of earmuffed silence.

— Mark Edmundson. I have a very different take on this: far from being necessary, rituals are pre-fabricated excuses. “I couldn’t write this morning because I have to sharpen six pencils before writing and there are only four in the house.” “I couldn’t write a word today because the Darjeeling hasn’t arrived.”

My writing ritual is: I write. With whatever is available. I typically use my MacBook or, when I’m in a certain mood, a fountain pen in a notebook. But I can write on an iPad or even on a phone. I can write on a legal pad with a ballpoint pen, or on index cards with a pencil. As soon as you say “I can only write when things are just so” you have set yourself up for failure.

When I read Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, I thought first This is a magnificent book and second I wish I had written it. I don’t often have that second response when I read books I admire. Most good books come from minds so different from my own that my admiration of them is unaccompanied by envy. But Romantic Moderns overlaps so much with my own interests that as I read it I really wished I had made that subject my own — even though I don’t have the expertise and skills necessary to do so.

I just finished Weatherland, and what I felt about Harris’s previous book I feel also about this one, but twice as strongly. She exemplifies a combination of virtues that is very unusual — I don’t have a name for that combination, but I can awkwardly summarize it as the whole-hearted and vivid narration of hard-won knowledge. There are true scholars who couldn’t tell a strong story to save their lives; there are wonderful storytellers whose narratives are raised on shaky scholarly foundations; but writers who have genuine expertise and the ability to weave a wonderful tale — those are rare birds indeed. Alexandra Harris is one of that breed.

Malcolm wishes you all a happy National Dog Day

my best blog posts of 2015

I’m not an Episcopalian, or even particularly religious, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me that one of the books I most enjoyed this year was Alan Jacobs’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013). It turns out that the story of the Anglican prayer book is a great yarn: a tale of theological dispute and refined prose style against a backdrop of the mafia-like power struggles of England’s royal families. Jacobs is a tactful historian, who doesn’t assume that his readers know much about English history or religious doctrine. But I imagine that even a reader who knew a great deal would enjoy the snap of Jacobs’s telling, as when he describes an early disavowal of transubstantiation as “palpably crabby.” If you’ve ever wondered why the Church of England has failed to substantially revise its prayer book since 1662, or what the jokes in Victorian novels about church candlesticks are really about, this is the history for you.

When I think about songs that have made an actual difference to me — not really what I mean when I speak of “favorite” songs, necessarily, or the songs I think are the best, even, though there’s some of both here, but the ones that had an effect, that changed how I thought or acted — this one may be at the top of the list. At a time, about fifteen years ago, when I was confused and uncertain about my path, when I lacked confidence to move forward to write about things I believed in, this song reached me and gave me the impetus I needed. It will always have a very distinctive and important place in my heart. “And you know you come with empty hands / Or you don’t come at all….”

So thanks, Bill Mallonee, I owe you one. Thanks so much.

credulous skeptics

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do. Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

— I wrote this four years ago and still think it’s a true and important point. Just sayin’.

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