History and Interpretation

Matthew J. Milliner has a great article in the most recent Comment Magazine issue on Armenian Christian art. After describing the diversity and distinctive aspects of Armenia’s Christian history through its art, he ends with this observation:

We tend to selectively read Christian history to confirm our suspicions, but a Christianity inspired by Armenia would not fit into expected “Roman Catholic,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “evangelical” silos any more than Armenia itself can.

These kinds of arguments always make me uncomfortable: partly because I worry that I’m always making this mistake, and partly because I don’t know how to effectively avoid making that mistake. Doing history well–i.e., telling the narrative of historical events–seems to be a constant battle between opposite extremes: 1) fitting historical events into a monolithic narrative, and 2) interpreting history merely as a series of disconnected unique events. Both extremes result in a variety of symptoms–racism, ideological determinism, ignorance, naivete, partial truths, etc. etc.

Is it possible to strike a balance? Probably, but I’m not sure what it would look like. Maybe it’s just an unending act of re-interpretation and revision of the narrative…but that comes with it’s own pitfalls as well.

Whence and Whither #4

1. Conservatives are bad at environmentalism. One reason, Ben Sixsmith argues, is that environmentalism has been hopelessly politicized, which has resulted in conservatives misrepresenting scientific data about climate change and getting their panties in a wad about how environmentalism is code for liberal progressivism. I don’t think he’s far off the mark here.

2. Gender is a social construct. Period. But let’s not pretend that it’s arbitrary or that 1950s America was a gender utopia (…much less was it consonant with biological realities). Christopher Shanon discusses Ivan Illich’s book Gender in relation to the ubiquity of bad arguments woven throughout contemporary discussion about gender. Here is my favorite paragraph for the article:

As with most of Illich’s writings, Gender has much to infuriate people across the political spectrum.  In one characteristic sentence, Illich writes: “To me, the pursuit of a non-sexist ‘economy’ is as absurd as a sexist one is abhorrent.”3  Here, he criticizes both progressives who reduce male-female relations to an equality that would abolish meaningful and ennobling gender distinctions, yet also conservatives who, in the name of defending “traditional” relations, are actually defending the subordination of women within a regime of sex.  For Illich, keeping women at home hardly qualifies as shoring up gender against sex, for the home has, according to his analysis, already long been transformed into yet another capitalist workplace: the stay-at-home mom is simply the low person on a totem pole—a single measuring stick of productivity and remuneration—that she shares with her more economically successful go-to-work husband.

3. Tunes: Let the groove of Thom Yorke sink deep into your bones.

4. I just finished reading The Red Badge of Courage for the first time, and I loved it. It has inspired me to pick up Hemingway. I’ve set my sights on A Farewell to Arms–a book that has alluded me for too long. But now that I’m 30, I don’t think I’ll put it off any longer.

5. Alan Jacobs on the important difference between “Stock and Flow.”

Hemingway on War

This, from Hemingway’s introduction to the 1948 illustrated edition of A Farewell to Arms:

The title of the book is A Farewell to Arms and except for three years there has been war of some kind almost ever since it has been written. Some people used to say, why is the man so obsessed with war, and now, since 1933 perhaps it is clear why a writer should be interested in the constant, bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war. Having been to too many of them, I am sure that I am prejudiced, and I hope that I am very prejudiced. But it is the considered belief of the writer of this book that wars are fought by the finest people that there are, or just say people, although, the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet; but they are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.

Whence and Whither #3

1. Jake Meador has a great newsletter. His first issue, in particular, hits on a handful of important issues related to writing, hospitality, and loving our neighbors. But his second issue addresses a problem at the heart of a metastasizing trend in writing in the age of social media:

If we have no common objects of love, what is the affection that can lead us toward studiousness and away from curiosity? If my confidences in everything save my own identity is diminished—and late modern liberalism seems to me to be designed to do precisely that—then my desire for knowledge can only be curiosity.
This, incidentally, is what I meant in the first issue when I said that the only writers with something valuable to say in this context are the writers with a deep love and affection for a particular home place. If we don’t have something outside ourselves that our work is ordered to, then all that we have left is the self and all our work is merely a form of identity construction. And at that point, I fear that the standard for our work is no longer truthfulness or whether the work tends toward love but is, rather, whether the work satisfies us personally or advances our private interests.
2. The Great Non-Rules of English Grammar accompanied by my brief commentary (h/t Prufrock News):
  • Never begin a sentence with “And” or “But.”
    • Yes. I’m a big fan of starting sentences with a conjunction for all the reasons Dreyer mentions in the article. I find it provides some snap to a sentence, and it can spring the reader into the next thought.
  • Never split an infinitive
    • Personally, I think it’s better to follow this non-rule more often than not. I take Dreyer’s point that sometimes inserting an adverb in between the “to” and the “verb” does sound better (“To bodly go where no man has gone before”). But generally it obscures meaning unnecessarily.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition: “Up with which I shall not put!”
    • My view? See “never split an infinitive.” Writers (especially young writers) should follow this non-rule except when it doesn’t work.

3. Matthew Anderson’s exhortation in light of the recent abortion discussions surrounding VA Governor Ralph Northam’s comments regarding a late term abortion bill, and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who signed the Reproductive Health Act which extends the time frame for late term abortions. For many, this is a cause for concern/despair. But Anderson is right that the Christian response should be compassionate:

In other words, evangelicals must speak of infanticide in ways that remain animated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to proclaim the darkness of the evil inflicted upon infants and their mothers in ways that still hold forth the promise of good news. The truth of compassion provides comfort in the face of the cross—a comfort that defeats death not by inflicting it, but by overcoming it with love.

4. These days I’m a sucker for any article that will take down the repackaging of ancient philosophies into modern day self-help movements. Like Stoicism:

Einstein’s God will no doubt appeal more to Pigliucci’s readers than the divine craftsman of the Stoics. Pigliucci contends, moreover, that living well in the Stoic sense doesn’t depend “on whether there is a God” or what God’s “specific attributes” are. I strongly disagree. The practical part of Stoicism—the part where it teaches us how to live—doesn’t work without the outdated metaphysical underpinning. For the Stoics, Zeus made everything, including human beings, to maximize the universe’s perfection. What sets human beings apart is that they alone share in Zeus’s rational nature and can help carry out his plan by embracing the fate he has allotted to them. We are the only part of the universe that doesn’t just blindly function, but can grasp its task and perform it willingly. The key to happiness, therefore, is human reason, which enables us to understand Zeus’s plan and then direct our lives in accordance with it.

5. Austin Kleon on Walker Percy’s theory of “reentry.” (One day I’ll read Lost in the Cosmos for myself. Pinky swear). Quotation from Percy:

[W]hat is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?

6. Did I mention in the previous “Whence and Whither” that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is on Netflix? Well it is.

 

 

7. Tunes: “better jump down the manhole / light yourself a candle”

 

Whence and Whither #2

1. Brad East, “The Church and the Common Good: Can we equate the church’s eternal mission with temporary politics?”

I enjoy reading Brad’s articles partly because he represents a more moderate voice among many of the alarmists and culture warrior-type rhetoric within Christian circles. This article is no exception. It’s hard not to quote the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

How, you may ask, is this not secession from politics, a status quo–baptizing desertion of the common good? Answer: Because Christians remain as engaged as ever, even to the point of laying down their lives, only without the vices that attend a realized eschatology (activism absent resurrection): the desperate need to win, the entitled expectation of success, the assumption of God’s approval, the forgetfulness of sin, the recourse to evil means for good ends. Domine, quo vadis? Christian political witness is figured by St. Peter—the rock on which the church is built, surely an ecclesial sine qua non—following the Lord back into Rome, certain that his end is near, but equally certain that all his noble plans and good deeds are not worth resisting the call. For the End is not in his or any human hands, and depends not one iota on our efforts.

Christians in the West have been so bewitched by centuries of being in charge that we think the only alternatives are choosing to exercise influence or choosing not to, the former a function of “engagement,” the latter a function of “disengagement.” But consider Christians in Egypt or Iraq, for millennia a small but resilient minority in their homelands. Should we judge them faithful or unfaithful, missional or monastic? Doubtless the church should seek to bless the societies in which it finds itself, including politically; but are such opportunities always ready to hand? Must we force others to listen to us? Relevance requires more than effort; irrelevance is not a sin.

2. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is now (back?) on Netflix. So much for cutting back on binge watching television shows.

3. Tunes: I can’t listen to this song enough: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin

4. I just wrote a post that catalogues Dante’s various reactions to the sinners he meets throughout his journey in hell.

5. Rene Descartes’ reputation was not improved when I found out that he made a robot version of his deceased daughter.

Descartes before the Machine

I read Frankenstein for the first time last year which also happened to be the centenary of the first publication. So that worked out.

In this piece, David Lloyd Dusenbury re-asks the question at the heart of Mary Shelley’s story: why should we not mechanically recreate life? Dunesbury answers the question by first discussing the philosophical context of Shelley’s work. Naturally, Descartes comes up. He then mentions this interesting piece of biographical information:

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

I did not know this about Descartes, and it doesn’t improve my opinion of him. Read the rest of Dusenbury’s piece at First Things.