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Monday, September 26th, 2005
When I was young, my church's library gave out free bookmarks. These had Bible passages printed on them, along with beautiful pictures. One bookmark had Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus from John 3, and a picture of the earthrise taken by Apollo 8 astronauts from the moon. (That picture was a very popular one, then. And still fairly new.) The other was of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25, and a picture of waves crashing on rocks at the beach. For some time after that, I imagined that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus on the moon, and that the Last Judgment would take place at the beach. I pictured giant bleachers where we would wait for each person individually to be judged. I imagined being very bored with all the waiting.
How we imagine things is partly determined by how we read. In my case, I "read" some unrelated pictures into the text. (Probaby because in children's books, the pictures almost always did illustrate the text. My "hermeneutic" had been learned from experience.) But there are also questions as to what a text is supposed to do. Is the text itself a picture? Do we know what the Last Judgment is like from Matthew 25? In some senses the answer has to be "Yes." This is a divine revelation coming from the lips of God himself. He knows what he wants to communicate. If Matthew 25 were the only picture we had, I would take it pretty literally. But it is not the only picture we have. In other pictures, books are opened. In still others, past generations like the men of Sodom rise up and testify against the wicked generation that refused Christ. These pictures can no doubt be harmonized. We can put all the elements together to get a broader picture. But the broader picture shows that the individual pictures are not meant to show what happens in an exhaustive sense. They capture the character of the event by portraying a prominent aspect of it.
I wonder sometimes whether we aren't a little too narrow in our readings. When it comes to picturing the Last Judgment, I tend to conflate the Matthew 25 reading with an image of the White Throne from the Revelation, and see it as a quick decision. You're divided into two masses and sent to your destiny, no discussion. But is that really what we're taught?
The "no discussion" part is partly confirmed, partly disconfirmed by Matthew 25. The two sides ask, "Lord, when did we..." and the Lord offers a brief answer. But could this interplay not stand as merely one example of what happens? Another example of interplay is found where the men of Ninevah arise against Christ's evil generation. Does this only happen with groups on large matters, or does it also happen with individuals on smaller ones? When we view Matthew 25 alongside of this occurrence, we realize that we have only really seen a couple of snapshots. Perhaps we are invited to take these parts as small parts of a much larger whole. We really have little idea as to what all might happen in the scene. I would be more inclined to think that we read rightly if we add to these scenes lavishly with more of the same. Once we know that Jesus is the Son of Man in Daniel chapter seven, what can we expect of him based on what he has revealed of himself elsewhere?
But then why is Jesus' treatment so brief? There are many possibilities. One is that the number of snapshots is so many that setting forth fifty would be no more accurate than setting forth a couple. And if we have too much to consider, we begin to focus as much on the process of judgment as on the end result. Will we be bored waiting when it is not our turn? Or embarrassed? Perhaps the snapshots, while leaving much out, still give some sense of the whole that we will say was true to the mark on the other side, even as we see how much more really happened.
We want to keep in mind the Incarnation when we think of how fulfillment relates to promise. Who would have pictured a manger and shepherds and wisemen after reading the Old Testament prophecies. It required the rare eye of a Simeon to see that what was before him was a fulfillment. If the Bible were to be added to after the Judgment (I don't see this as happening.), then I would expect some new characters taking the stage that we had not expected. That seems to be how these things work.
But speculative imagination has a different purpose from the moral imagination that is first engaged by these stories. We are invited to imagine these scenes for a purpose. They are a way of inviting us to consider our lives and their impact. In Matthew 25, we find that incidents where we were involved with those the world considers insignificant were very significant, because God identified with the insigificant. The picture of the process of Judgment was traditional, with the exception that the Son of Man, whom his hearers knew of from Daniel chapter seven, was empathic with the lost, the little, and the least. Many of his hearers already knew that there was a Day of Judgment approaching. But they had not pictured the judgment being on these terms. Perhaps they thought they had obeyed the Ten Commandments from birth. But now look at how much they had left undone!
Have any of my readers had changes of mind in how these last scenes looked over the course of their lives?
10:50 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 4 comments ]
Wednesday, September 21st, 2005
Chris Williams has posted some information on Tolkien's Christian influences. I wanted to look into the Norse ones. Not to counter Chris's point, as I think scholars are right who say that what Tolkien was aiming for was a rewriting of Norse history to make it compatible with Christianity. (They would nuance the last sentence in any number of directions.) But to add to the conversation a side that I have been reading about lately.
Last night I picked up Lin Carter's 1969 study Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings. It contained some startling information. For instance, Carter tells of reading the Elder Edda and being "stopped cold" at stanza 10.
9. Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats,
The holy ones, | and council held,
To find who should raise | the race of dwarfs
Out of Brimir's blood | and the legs of Blain.
10. There was Motsognir | the mightiest made
Of all the dwarfs, | and Durin next;
Many a likeness | of men they made,
The dwarfs in the earth, | as Durin said.
11. Nyi and Nithi, | Northri and Suthri,
Austri and Vestri, | Althjof, Dvalin,
Nar and Nain, | Niping, Dain,
Bifur, Bofur, | Bombur, Nori,
An and Onar, | Ai, Mjothvitnir.
12. Vigg and Gandalf | Vindalf, Thrain,
Thekk and Thorin, | Thror, Vit and Lit,
Nyr and Nyrath,-- | now have I told--
Regin and Rathsvith-- | the list aright.
13. Fili, Kili, | Fundin, Nali,
Heptifili, | Hannar, Sviur,
Frar, Hornbori, | Fræg and Loni,
Aurvang, Jari, | Eikinskjaldi.
14. The race of the dwarfs | in Dvalin's throng
Down to Lofar | the list must I tell;
The rocks they left, | and through wet lands
They sought a home | in the fields of sand.
15. There were Draupnir | and Dolgthrasir,
Hor, Haugspori, | Hlevang, Gloin,
Dori, Ori, | Duf, Andvari,
Skirfir, Virfir, | Skafith, Ai.
[quoted by Carter, pp.153-154]
As Carter notes, sixteen of Tolkien's dwarf names (in bold) come from this source, and Gandalf, too.
I intend to take up the Elder Edda once I finish the Kalevala, another of Tolkien's sources which I am enjoying.
10:13 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 7 comments ]
Here is a hymn text that I really appreciate:
Go worship at Emmanuel's feet
See in His name what wonders meet!
Earth is too narrow to express
His worth, His glory, or His grace!
The whole creation can afford
But some faint shadow of my Lord!
Nature, to make his beauties known,
Must mingle colors not her own!
Is He a fountain? There I'll bathe
And heal the plague of sin and death!
These waters all my soul renew,
and cleanse my spotted garments, too!
Is He a sun? His beams are grace,
His course is joy and righteousness!
Is He a tree? The world receives
Salvation from His healing leaves!
Is He a rose? Not Sharon yields
Such fragrancy in all her fields!
Or if the lily He assume
The valley's bless the rich perfume.
Is He a star? He breaks the night
And spreads for all the dawning light!
I know His glories from afar
I know the bright, the Morning Star!
Is He a way? He leads to God?
The path is drawn in lines of blood!
There would I walk with hope and zeal
Till I arrive at Zion's Hill!
Is He a door? I'll enter in
Behold the pastures large and green!
A paradise, divinely fair
And all the saints have freedom there!
Is He a rock? How firm he proves!
The Rock of Ages never moves.
Yet the sweet streams that from Him flow
Attend us all the desert through!
No earth, nor sea, nor sun, nor stars
Nor heaven's full resemblance bears
His beauties we can never trace
Till we behold him face to face!
I discovered this on a CD I have by the Boston Camerata called, "The American Vocalist." The CD is currently out-of-print, but Amazon still has a page where you can sample tracks or look for used copies.
This is one of the happier pieces on the CD. The disk contains spirituals and folk hymns for the period from 1850-1870. The judgment hymns are terrifying. (Try the sample track of "The Warning".) We may imagine we have conservative hymnals, but much of this "embarrassing" material gets left out as hymnals get revised. (I even see a large shift from TLH to LW.)
I would love to be in a church where we were capable of singing music such as this CD contains.
9:37 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Saturday, September 17th, 2005
Here is a link to an article by Ken Myers on funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In it he says that two different questions need to be answered when this issue comes up. One is the proper role of government. The other is the place of art in human life. Most of Myers's article is devoted to arguing for a large place for art in human life. C.S. Lewis is the source for many of his arguments, and they're good ones. It is part of the nature of man as a created being to understand the world through imagination. When his understanding of the world is disordered, there are real world consequences. Whether or not this means Federal funding is in order (we could look at this as disaster avoidance), no Christian should be arguing against Federal funding on the rationale that art is a frill. Any Christian who is spending energy on cutting public arts funding ought to be spending energy on making sure the arts are funded privately, according to Myers.
Myers himself is on a National Endowment for the Arts panel which serves to allocate funding to the arts.
As a libertarian, I oppose Federal funding for the arts in principle. But I also subscribe to Myers's and Lewis's conception of the importance of the arts. My view of the appropriate functions of the government is that of a truly small government indeed. But when I think of what it takes to get there, it is not the small scaling back that most Republican administrations propose. Usually there is so much regulation that you cannot really tell in some cases whether certain tax dollars are not balancing out damage done by other regulation. (e.g. unemployment insurance balancing the upheavals caused by corporate irresponsibility which seems to be fueled by lax bankruptcy regulations. The arguments that such insurance encourages irresponsibility sound too much like they're from Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. I'll be all for ending unemployment insurance after crooked CEO's start going to jail en masse.) This is not an argument for such tax dollars. But it does make me careful about what I put my energy into seeing dismantled. I won't put my energy specifically into the defunding of fragile things, when they are good things. Too many Republicans do so only to go to the trough for their pet interests. And it's ugly.
12:54 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Friday, September 16th, 2005
In the first quarter of my sophomore year in college, I took a History of Western Music course. It was a year long series, and I took the first two of the three. The course did a lot to broaden my tastes in classical music. We had a textbook called "Listen", and it came with a set of vinyl records. (This was a year before I got my first CD player and played U2's Joshua Tree to death.) I played the records on my parents' old 1960 RCA console stereo.
Upon playing one of the tracks, I had an experience which blurred the line between religious and aesthetic. The track was Gabrieli's motet In Ecclesiis. From the very beginning I knew that I had been transported into a different world, that of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which was both the place for which it was written, and the location of the recording. E. Power Biggs played the organ. The Gregg Smith Singers and the Texas Boys Choir sang. The Edward Tarr Brass Ensemble played brass. All came together to blast the Hallelujahs between verses.
To this day, there is still a line in it that is my favorite line anywhere. Better even than my very favorite sections of Handel's Messiah ("...the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."). The line is, "et spes mea, in Deo est," or "My hope is in God." It was my favorite line long before I read the translation. That only made it better. The music carried the text so well that I almost knew what it meant before I read the translation. It had to be important. And grand. And the adult male and young boy voices singing it back and forth gave an added dimension. What do the words mean at those different points in life?
A couple of years later, I met a Transcendental Meditation instructor while taking a summer math course at a community college. He had become a believer in Sai Baba when he saw him on television at his parents' house in Berkeley in 1968. It was twenty years later and the man still thought Sai Baba was an incarnation of God. In fact, he had met Sai Baba and still believed in him. Anyway, this man liked talking about his experiences. One in particular was quite interesting.
He had gone to Europe on a trip. Perhaps on the way back from India. I can't remember. He stopped in Asisi. "The church at Asisi had very light vibrations because of the personality of St. Francis." Okay. Then he went to St. Mark's. "St. Mark, as you may know, was the only disciple Jesus perfected in the flesh." No. I did not know that. "When I went into St. Mark's, I knelt beside the casket of St. Mark, and the top of my head was blown off." I think many would have been inclined to horse laugh someone at this point. I'm hard-wired with too much of my dad's "live and let live" approach to do that (often). But what occurred to me shortly after he said this was that after hearing In Ecclesiis, if there were any place on earth I could imagine having such an experience, it would be at St. Mark's in Venice.
For a long time after I owned this track on vinyl, an impossible wish filled my heart. I wished this recording would be available on CD. I feared the day when I could no longer play the track on account of scratches. And the cassette version would not last forever, either. But this seemed unlikely. In the early days of compact disks, I hadn't seen much old material republished in CD form. Especially not what I imagined was an obscure old recording that I had stumbled upon.
Then my wish came true. I found a CD called "The Glory of Venice." I knew the performers well enough to know that this was what I was looking for. There was much more than the one track to enjoy, however.
I highly recommend this CD. The title with In Ecclesiis is not currently available. But there is a collection of recordings from the same sessions. There is also a collection of files available from the Texas Boy's Choir site which allows you to hear In Ecclesiis and the other tracks. If you can find the original "Glory of Venice" CD, buy it. But beware of a CD of the same title by King's College Cambridge. You may be tempted to believe they will do a better job with it. No, they won't. They are, to my ear, unmatched at singing English church music. But they make church music of Russians and Italians sound English as well. The musky incense of the Russians is missing when they perform Rachmaninov. And the wonderful echoey distortions of St. Mark's are not to be traded for the acoustics of an English cathedral. I also like the boy alto voices which I rarely hear elsewhere (aside from the "Glory" soundtrack). The atmosphere is what I would call a cheerful melancholy.
Even the liner notes to "The Glory of Venice" are great. Setting up the recording was apparently an ordeal, logistical and bureaucratic. The writer explains the difficulties of penetrating the "macaroni curtain." More can be read here.
12:33 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 16 comments ]
Friday, September 9th, 2005
I have a pet peeve. It has to do with how information is arranged. I find this of computer books, and even worse, of help files that have been written in the last ten years. Somewhere along the line, the people who write such material have decided that everyone is more comfortable with stories than with logical structure. And they assume that everyone's reference skills are so non-existent that they can only find things using natural language.
What this ends up meaning is that it is impossible to look anything up. Instead of an index, you find a button which says "How do I..." Then none of the options has much to do with what you wanted to do. Worse yet, any index function is cleverly hidden and sparsely populated. I was spoiled when I was younger and had a book on IBM Basic which had all commands alphabetically arranged, with a definition and a few unambiguous examples.
Then I cannot even vent such frustration in a classroom setting. If you try to ask a question of the type, "How would I even find out how to do that in the first place," the answer you get is a concrete explanation of how to solve the problem in question. Theory being, nobody wants to know how to find anything for themself. The teacher is there.
I can imagine a dictionary which was structured like this. You want to find out how to spell ineligible. You can't remember whether it ends in "ible" or "able." (Sorry. Good examples were hard to come by.) So you go to look it up. Only it isn't in the I's. There are no I's. The dictionary is a long story about some dyslexic speller named Judy. (It was an attempt by the dictionary publisher to sound sympathetic to the dictionary user.) The chapters are arranged around Judy's life. The words are arranged in the order that Judy actually learned them. So words like "dog" come much earlier than words like "ineligible." Well, at least you know your answer will likely be later in the book.
You complain to someone about the structure of the book. "I just want to know how to spell a word. How am I supposed to find this word in a book like this?" "What word did you want to spell?" "Ineligible." "Why don't you just use the word "unqualified"? "That's not the point. I want to be able to use this word when I want to use it." "If you're too impatient to read the whole book, maybe you shouldn't be using words like this. You know, there are shorter books than the one about Judy."
"Well why can't they just arrange the book alphabetically?" "That might make the book too technical and scare people off. These days people are more comfortable with stories." Ok.
1:00 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 6 comments ]
Tuesday, September 6th, 2005
[I wrote this last Saturday, but wanted time to ponder.]
This is a sad day. Justice William Rehnquist has died. Even in his final illness he appeared a giant, as he lumbered to the fore of the innauguration and towered over President Bush when he swore him into his second term. He and O'Connor were often considered swing votes, as if there were no coherent positions between a wooden originalism on the right, and a living document relativism on the left. These two brought a Western states conservativism with which I as a Californian am very familiar. Individual liberty is a high priority with such people, as it was with old ACLU Democrats in the 1960's. This priority makes some imagine that they were fundamentally liberal, or confused. But they were not.
For me this is a double tragedy, as I lament Sandra Day O'Connor's vacancy as well. These were my two favorite justices. (Did you know they dated briefly in their student days?) Many conservatives prefer Scalia and Thomas. While Scalia's dissents are some of the sharpest writing from the bench that I have read, I fear that he is a "rights enumerator." An originalist reading is a good idea. But I think Scalia gives the text of the Constitution a reading which will not recognize rights that are not spelled out. His is still without doubt a better reading than many give it, as there are a lot of manufactured rights in the conversation these days. But the Founding Fathers feared what would happen if they listed rights only later to find that those rights were considered the only ones people had. In contrast, I haven't read enough of Thomas to know how to judge him. Perhaps he has the best mind on the court. But I know that Rehnquist and O'Connor tended to side with liberty more often than not.
Certain conservatives see these vacancies as opportunities to get even better conservatives in place. Do I imagine that there are better conservatives out there? Yes. Do I imagine that better justices will fill these two vacancies? No. For me, a better conservative does not mean one further to the right. At least, that is not my first hope. And what "further to the right" could well mean is a "values conservative" who just wants to legislate personal morality despite whatever the text of the Constitution says. I want a textualist who believes that the Constitution describes a wonderful mechanism for self-government, and wishes to see it honored more deeply. To show my hand, I believe in a pro-life government, as the unborn do have a right to life. But I also believe that some kind of a right to privacy does exist, despite the muddy way Roe v. Wade affirmed it. Such a right does have its place in discussions of issues like certain aspects of gay rights. (No, I don't mean marriage or adoption here.) Like the Founding Fathers, I believe that there are unenumerated rights. They just cannot be used to abuse others. Some of these rights are inalienable. Some are not.
I am cautiously optimistic that Roberts and another successor could improve the court. Though I fear they will probably not. If they are values conservatives, I may sometimes find myself happy that they were outvoted by the left end of the court. But what I would really lament about such an outcome is that it would polarize people's sense of their options. Many might then hope for a divided court as the only way of achieving a balance. If we got more conservative "centrists" like the two we just lost, I think things would look very different, indeed.
I plan to spend some time reading more of Justice Thomas's decisions. That might make me happier. I want to know that there is someone good on the court. The court is our best chance at seeing a deep fix take place in our government. The Legislative and Executive branches do not hold the hope that the Judicial branch does for deep change.
11:01 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 6 comments ]