Easter Worship

For this year’s Easter post, I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of what we do at my church. We’re a tiny congregation, which affords us the luxury of some habits which would be more difficult in larger congregations. On holidays, particularly Easter and Christmas, our worship service involves Scripture readings by members of the congregation, with our hymns and praise songs interspersed. The Scripture readings are hand-picked to tell the story of God’s redemption of mankind, from beginning to Christ. I pray that you are blessed by what you read here.


Man Made a Little Lower than God

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” …God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27, 28, 31a)

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:1, 3-6a)

Continue reading “Easter Worship”

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Thank God for the Irish!

Greetings and well met, friends. Perhaps you remember my review of The Secret of Kells (2009) some time ago, and how much I liked that movie about the beautiful illustrated Bible that “turns darkness into light.” It’s a beautiful movie in many ways, not least because its art is a simple joy to behold. However, if there was one thing the movie could have used more of, it’s the Book of Kells itself. Such glimpses the movie gives us of its brightly colored illuminations is only enough to whet the appetite.

Fortunately, that appetite may now be sated. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Trinity College Dublin has made available for free viewing online the entirety of the Book of Kells, scanned digitally so that every colored line can be clearly seen. Follow the link to enjoy the beauty of art that glorifies God!

Book of Kells folio 5

Book Meme 2012 Week 10: Books for the Post-Apocalypse

Alas, ’tis upon me! Obscenely late, but here nonetheless — the end of the 2012 Book Meme! ‘Twas scheduled for but ten weeks…but it never specified which ten! I just…spread them a bit apart, is all. Nonetheless, I bring my participation here to a close. May next year’s Meme be as fruitful, but more timely!

Topic: Which books would you bring if the world was destroyed and we had to restart civilization? (i.e. the basis of human knowledge, thought, and civilization)

I take the premise of this topic to be the utter destruction of human society wherever it exists, survived only by small and incomplete groups of people who, lacking any clear leadership and way forward, must join together to reform themselves into a healthy society that can not only self-perpetuate, but grow, and provide for the welfare and happiness—physical, emotional, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual—of its members. Had they but a very few (we’ll say in the single digits) books recovered from our current civilization, which ones might be the most helpful for the rebuilding of society? Which ones would advise them best against the pitfalls that could scuttle their endeavor, show them how to avoid various tyrannies and injustices, and reveal the best way, the ideal, that they should strive for?

To proffer an answer to such a question, we must know what is the purpose of human society, of all human relationships, and indeed of our very existence.

I reject offhand all philosophies and worldviews that claim there is no purpose or meaning to human existence. To build a successful society, one must have a goal that one is working towards, and these—whether relativisms, existentialisms, Postmodernisms, or other intellectually bankrupt ismatic[1] forms—offer none.

Now, there are many other philosophies that do indeed offer an answer, and I reject all but the one I know by experience and revelation to be true. The Westminster Catechism may say it best:

 Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

Ergo, the purpose of human society and civilization is to enable all people to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever. This is the real standard by which a civilization can be deemed more or less successful.

Thus, the only book that would be truly necessary in the Post-Apocalypse is the one book that has, completely and perfectly, as its great theme the glorification of God and the communication of Him to humanity:

The Bible.

So there you go.

However, the topic question is in the plural. While the Holy Bible is the only necessary and all-sufficient book, and indeed contains in it all the principles by which mankind must ever need to live, it is not the only book which can be useful to us. God has gifted us the ability and desire to communicate and to share our communications, even across the age; the gift of Literature, that we would be foolish not to take advantage of while we can, but never, of course, forgetting that the chief end of Literature is also the enabling of mankind to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever.

So, acknowledging the embarrassing deficiencies of my personal education (including the fact that I simply don’t read much literature of a political or even philosophical nature, not as much as I should), I’ll suggest another book that could, if read intelligently, discussed wisely, and applied humbly, aid in the building of “a more perfect union.” There are many others, but it’s painful to think of choosing so few books at the exclusion of others, and this meme has been delayed long enough, so I’ll stick with this one “honorable mention” for now.

Politics by Aristotle

 Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all.

-Politics I.2.1253a25

I choose the Politics over Plato’s Republic mainly because it’s been absolutely ages since I read Plato, and then only a few selections, and frankly it hasn’t stuck well in my memory. Aristotle, in contrast, I studied fairly rigorously over an entire course, reading his Politics, Poetics, and Nicomachean Ethics, and then comparing them to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. That was still a few years ago, so I have to rely on my margin notes and underlined passages of the book, but I still think the Politics is one of the best texts for inciting useful debates about the most important aspects of human society.

Just as for Christians everything comes back to glorifying God through Christ and His act of redemption, for Aristotle everything comes back to eudaimonia, or a life consisting of the best and truest happiness. Aristotle’s wisdom comes from his attempts to reconcile the ideal with the practical. He knows that there is a perfect, moral absolute by which mankind can be judged, but he also knows that we can’t completely live up to it.

The ideal form of government, in his opinion, will be the one which best fulfills the highest purpose of a government; that is, the common interest.  Since the common interest is what is best for all citizens, and since what is best for individual citizens is virtue, then the best government will be that which can foster the most virtuous citizens (presumably both in quality and quantity), as well as maintain “a perfect and self-sufficing existence” for them (III.9.1280b33).  “The good life,” Aristotle says, “is the chief end, both for the community as a whole and for each of us individually” (III.6.1278b23).

He talks about who should make the laws (ideally, only the most morally upright men no matter what rank of society they come from), how the economy should be structured, how and when wars should or should not be conducted, how to avoid a culture of petty jealousies and political squabbling, and why it is imperative that they not just settle for a mediocre society, but actively strive for the best one possible. And should these survivors of the apocalypse ever become existential and suicidal, they might remember this:

But people also come together, and form and maintain political associations, merely for the sake of life; for perhaps there is some element of good even in the simple fact of living, so long as the evils of existence do not preponderate too heavily. It is an evident fact that most people cling hard enough to life to be willing to endure a good deal of suffering, which implies that life has in it a sort of healthy happiness and a natural quality of pleasure.

-III.6.1278b28

The group of post-apocalyptic survivors would find much to debate in Politics, and if they are wise, they will learn from his logical and methodical processes while still being able to critique him, hopefully from a biblical viewpoint. Many of his views, such as the ones on slavery, they should not adopt, although I think Aristotle was rather progressive for his time for insisting that not all who were physically slaves should have been, and that some who physically were among the elite deserved to be slaves! But he understands the interconnectedness of society: the importance of individual virtue and self-regulation, of families maintaining healthy relationships, of neighbors caring for each others’ welfare, and of a people that respects its government because its government is composed of morally upright and wise men who try their best to serve the people humbly and selflessly. That’s the ideal. We’ll never quite get there on this earth, and we’ll probably stay very far away, but Aristotle knows this and still insists we must strive for this ideal. In post-apocalyptic stories, we usually see the survivors dissolving into petty power-struggles and jealous squabbles, but if they had Aristotle’s Politics, they’d learn a bit about how to deal with some of the specific problems they come across.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: a government’s “intrinsic strength should be derived from the fact, not that a majority are in favor of its continuance (that might well be the case even with a poor constitution), but rather that no section at all in the city would favor a change to a different constitution” (IV.9.1294b13).

Of course, if the survivors had only Politics and not the Bible, while they might succeed in recreating something similar to a decent Greek city-state, they would not fare nearly as well as if they were pursuing Christ. God blessed Aristotle with perhaps the best of worldly wisdom, but even that cannot compare to the penetrating truth of the gospel, which lays bare all men’s hearts .

N.B. Ideally, this would be paired with the Nichomachean Ethics and the Poetics, for they all are designed to complement and explain each other. You’ll understand Politics much better if you know all the internal debates Aristotle goes through to understand eudaimonia in the Ethics, and Art in the Poetics.


[1] Taking the form of an “-ism,” that is, of theories and schools of thought that try to squeeze the grandness of the universe into their narrow field of vision, without success. To my knowledge, I have coined the word. There is probably a better one out there, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

Book Review: “The Habitation of the Blessed” by Catherynne Valente

The cover is lavish, complex, and beatifully detailed. So is the story, but not without problems.

Title: A Dirge for Prester John: Volume One: The Habitation of the Blessed
Series: The second and final volume, The Folded World, has just been released.
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Pages: 269
Published: 2010
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Four stories intertwined are told. The first is of Brother Hiob, who in 1699 travels to India searching for Prester John, the mythical Christian priest-king ruling a hidden and fantastical kingdom. Hiob finds a magical tree on which books grow, and plucks down three of them to read. The first book (and our second story) is by John himself, a medieval priest, who tells of his shipwreck on a sea of sand and his discovery of Pentexore, a secluded land in the East filled with bizarre creatures, perverse philosophies, and secrets of ancient history. Our third story is by Hagia, a blemmye who becomes John’s queen, who writes in bitterness of her life before and after his coming. The final story is by Hajji, a panotti, who recounts her famous early life as nanny and storyteller to three royal children.
Reason for Beginning: I bought it at Borders’ closing book sale, on the strength of recommendations for Catherynne Valente, and because I could not find her Orphan’s Tales. I also have a keen interest in medieval history and the legend of Prester John.
Reason for Finishing: Beautiful writing, but also as a bit of a challenge. Valente launches an attack on Christianity in the book, and in order for me to understand it and reply I had to finish it.
Story Re-readability: Low, for me, because there was too much to dislike, but going by other reviews, many people loved it. The prose is rich and worth returning to, and the story is certainly layered, with enough complexity to sustain rereads. In fact, I would gladly revisit the world of the story, for the most part. But the characters and themes were distasteful to me, and I have no current desire to return to them.
Author Re-readability: As said above, Valente’s prose is beautiful, and in many places quite original, and I will be seeking out her Orphan’s Tales, which come highly recommended by dear friends of mine. But I’m not in love with her: in fact, her prose is so florid and grandiose that it nearly smothers her characters, and I had difficulty connecting with them emotionally. But much of this comes down to personal preference: I gravitate towards storytelling that seems almost unaware of its greatness, that has an element of modesty and love for its readers. The Habitation of the Blessed, in contrast, feels very much wrapped up in its own Greatness, as if it expects its readers to bow down and worship it. This tone put me off, and is one reason why I probably won’t reread it.
Recommendation: My recommendation is more subjective than ever, here. In general, I will say no, because I found the story itself to be lacking in true value and Valente’s themes to be offensive and steeped in poor philosophy. Christians will feel attacked by this book, as Valente does everything she can to belittle and attack our faith at every turn, even going so far as to rewrite sections of it and then use that as the basis of her misunderstandings. I note, with some pessimism, that the reviews I have read on other sites fail to notice her prejudice. However, the world she creates is so blooming with life and creativity, and her prose so glimmering, that a good reader will find much to enjoy and learn from, even if he dislikes the things I dislike about it.

Key Thoughts

In her Acknowledgements, Valente credits the inspiration for this novel to “a very bad poem” about the titular priest-king left in her office by an anonymous student that caused her to say to herself, “Prester John deserves better.” I smile, because I can completely relate to that moment. I had many like it myself as I read The Habitation of the Blessed. Oh, I do not mean to says that Prester John deserves a more skilled proser. Valente is among the very best I have ever had the privilege of reading. She’s high-minded and down-to-earth, bold and gentle, and has qualities belonging both to the lyricists (writing surreal images of great visual and emotional power) and the chroniclers (blending myths and folk tales with history in a pseudo-historical manner). But she utterly brutalizes the man Prester John and everything Christian he stood for to the medieval people who heard his legend. It is her story and she may write what she likes, but I am not obliged to like it or agree with it, nor to accept or reject it in its entirety.

Fortunatus interrupted us, squinting in the snow. He turned his liquid golden eyes on me. ‘Why do you continue in your faith, when it means you must deny all the evidence of your senses and suffer for the promise of ever-postponed bliss? Because it is the way you have found to understand the world, to live in it and not despair. You speak of war in your country; we do not have it. You speak of jealousy, of coveting wives and wealth; we know nothing of this but in old, old tales of times we are glad we do not live in. You speak of vicious cruelty on account of whether or not to paint an image of your God; I and all of us find this obscene, and do not begin to understand it. We live forever and we live in peace and it is fragile, John. It is so fragile. And when a thing is fragile, it is best left undisturbed.’

‘In Christ there is also peace,’ I said, and the angel said nothing.

The above quote, between John and a creature who looks like a biblical angel (many-winged, many-eyed, song-voiced), is one of many passages where Valente sets up a false and shallow idea of what she thinks Christianity is and tears it down by way of the magical rules she invents for her world. To her, Christianity is a set of rules in conflict with what is natural, and so she uses as her Christian mouthpiece the puritanically disturbed and abused John. John meets the amazing creatures of Pentexore and becomes obsessed with converting them; not, that is, in giving them true life and freedom through Christ, but in making them say Mass and dress by his customs and build things he can call cathedrals. He is not a villain – Valente has some sympathy for all her characters, I believe, and she does a good job of portraying John’s inner struggle with the text he remembers from the Bible, what he was taught by Nestorius (who denied the fullness of the Incarnation), and what he sees before him in Pentexore. He is capable of great passion and affection, and shows tenderness to those creatures he becomes more familiar with. But as a spokesperson for Christianity, he is a poor choice, because he lacks any real understanding of the gospel. He lacks spiritual life, in fact. He is bound by the Law, and has no concept of freedom in Christ (I’ve been in the Book of Romans quite a bit lately). He tries to fight sin with rules, and falls apart in so doing. For instance, one of his great weaknesses is lust. So Valente pits him against one of the other narrators, Hagia, who is of a race of human-like people whose heads are located in their chests. This means that her mouth is in front of her heart, and her eyes are at the ends of her breasts. So John is forced to stare at her naked torso if he wishes to pay her attention; this causes him no end of grief, because he believes women and their bodies are inherently sinful, and yet he is overcome with lust for her. Talk about a shallow misunderstanding of Christian notions of sexuality and modesty! Yet Valente uses him to represent Christianity, and seems to take his ideas as mostly representative.

Well, not completely representative. To be fair, she has two other Christian characters who are far more sympathetic. Brother Hiob, whose tale is the frame in which the others are set, is obviously a kind and good man, much more wise and healthy than John. But his faith is easily shaken by what he reads in the memoirs of John, Hagia, and Hajji. His goodness seems to be in spite of his faith. The other character is Thomas, also called Doubting Thomas, the apostle. His part in the story is small, but vital. John learns that after Christ’s crucifixion, Thomas left for the East and discovered Pentexore. Initially disturbed by the bizarre creatures and their ways, he nonetheless responded with love and charity, marrying one creature, settling down, and finding a way to synthesize their strange world and morals with his own understanding of Jesus’ teachings. For the most part I liked him as a person – he obviously understood that love and relationships are more important to God than rules. But she has Thomas be Jesus’ twin brother and offer an account of His life that is similar in some respects to the gospels, but just different enough to miss the point. On the one hand, Valente does not contradict His miracles, or His prophesied birth, or His perfect wisdom and love. But she leaves his identity in some mystery, and suggests that even if He is the Son of God the Father, then the Father is probably different from what Christians believe.

I also disliked the handling of the Pentexoran characters, even though I have great admiration for how Valente could portray such fantastic creatures with such down-to-earth, human-like personalities. Now, just because the characters are unlikable is not reason enough to dislike a story – Matt Schneider at Catecinem has an excellent discussion of the value of unlikable protagonists in certain stories. The problem here is that I dislike characters that Valente wants me to like. Immortal, bizarre, and wonderful, the Pentexorans are supposed to represent an ideal outlook towards life. They are not intended to be perfect themselves, but to be as perfect as flawed creatures can be. Yet their hypocrisy is astounding. They lecture John angrily on love and tolerance, yet are smug, condescending, and arrogant towards him and all Christian ideas. They believe their society to be the epitome of Goodness and Naturalness, yet—because of a ritual that causes them to reshuffle their lives ever century or so, as an antidote for the monotony of immortality—they are forced to frequently break the natural ties of family and friends. Because of these issues, I was unable to connect emotionally with any of them, although I remained interested in their lives.

I admit that it is difficult to explain my complaints against the book in a review that should be kept to no more than a handful of pages. The book’s plot and themes are complex and best explained in its own words. Much of what I dislike are the final implications of many layers of world-building that Valente has built up, and for you to quite understand what I mean would necessitate me explaining all her worldbuilding, which I have neither the time nor energy to do.

But perhaps I can comment on the world-building, but as a way of speaking more positively about this book.

See, what I do love is how Valente is just bursting with stories to tell. She is not satisfied with four interlacing tales, no; she fills every corner and crevice of the pages with stories. Little ones, big ones, some dealing with the mundane life of Pentexorans, some with extravagant myths, all of them striking in imagery and soaked in atmosphere. The Ship of Bones traveling over the sea of sand, by which the first fantastic creatures of a civilized nature arrived in Pentexore to settle it. Trips to the Fountain of Youth, where a goose-headed old woman serves immortality from a pool of sludge on the side of a mountain. How the Phoenixes died in their great forest to leave only one behind. How Alexander the Great entered the hidden land and built a wall of diamonds to shut in the evil giants Gog and Magog, and then left to continue his conquests of humanity. How a squat creature named Astolfo makes a living brewing potions and inks in his great mouth, while his wife, Hagia, tends the trees on which books grow. Hundreds of stories are told this way. There is a certain thrill from realizing the easy magic of this world.

So there we have it, in as best a summary as I can manage now. The Habitation of the Blessed is composed with great skill and passion, overflowing with a generous love of words and the art of storytelling. It is ruined, in my opinion, by the prejudices of its author and her poor philosophy. I disliked this book because its worldview was opposed to my own. If you can read it and not feel attacked or belittled, then you will probably enjoy it much more.

Chesterton’s “Chord of Colour”

Capital hat, good man!

Ah, Chesterton, witty Christian sage! Here he expounds again on his favorite subject: how the unspiritual man blinds himself to the magnificent glories of God’s creation. In this poem, we appear to have a narrator utterly besotted with his Lady fair; and yet not so besotted as to worship her at the exclusion of the God who created her. On the contrary, the splendor of the Lady’s beauty calls his attention to all the other splendors God has made. The Lady wears gray, he exults in gray spires, gray morning skies, and the gray hairs that mark the wisdom and honor of old age. She wears green, and every grass and tree seems to shine like an emerald. She wears blue, and he is awed and grateful at the Creator’s artistry in using that same color for the sky.

My friends, I have only just discovered this poem, but it grows increasingly beautiful to me as I reflect on it. What Chesterton has given us is a picture of how the romantic love between a godly man and woman will of its own accord, and quite naturally, magnify their own love for God. And since their love for each other comes from God Himself, well, you see what a wonderful, eternal cycle this is.

And yet this cycle of love, joy, and beauty, is not enjoyed by all. The “evil sage” at the end—I guess that Chesterton is hinting at scholars and intelligentsia who care not to think of God—looks at the world, and sees only a bubble, not even then noting the colorful beauty of bubbles themselves!

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A Chord of Colour

My Lady clad herself in grey,
That caught and clung about her throat;
Then all the long grey winter day
On me a living splendour smote;
And why grey palmers holy are,
And why grey minsters great in story,
And grey skies ring the morning star,
And grey hairs are a crown of glory.

My Lady clad herself in green,
Like meadows where the wind-waves pass;
Then round my spirit spread, I ween,
A splendour of forgotten grass.
Then all that dropped of stem or sod,
Hoarded as emeralds might be,
I bowed to every bush, and trod
Amid the live grass fearfully.

My Lady clad herself in blue,
Then on me, like the seer long gone,
The likeness of a sapphire grew,
The throne of him that sat thereon.
Then knew I why the Fashioner
Splashed reckless blue on sky and sea;
And ere ’twas good enough for her,
He tried it on Eternity.

Beneath the gnarled old Knowledge-tree
Sat, like an owl, the evil sage:
‘The World’s a bubble,’ solemnly
He read, and turned a second page.
‘A bubble, then, old crow,’ I cried,
‘God keep you in your weary wit!
‘A bubble–have you ever spied
‘The colours I have seen on it?’

Source: The Wild Knight and Other Poems by G.K. Chesterton, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Book Meme Day 7: An Underrated Book

I’ve been pondering the distinction between an underrated book and an overlooked book. The latter merely means that fewer people have read it than you think should have, and it is possible that the few who have read it all think it great. But the former is the opposite, meaning that many or most of those who have read the book fail to appreciate the qualities you think make it great. It is not too difficult to find an overlooked book, since most books are overlooked by most people. To decide a book is underrated is a trickier task, because it requires some knowledge of what other people think of it.

Most of the books that came to my mind fit more in the overlooked category, and thus it has been a struggle to find one that is truly underrated. Favorite books of mine like Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers and George MacDonald’s Phantastes can be counted obscure, but their readers, however few, tend to praise them.

So in the end my choice for an underrated book is more a choice of an underrated main character. The novel itself has been studied ad nauseum in schools and universities, and both its emotional power and importance in American history have generally been admitted. However, my impression has been that its title character is not given the respect he so richly deserves.

The book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I’d love to be wrong about this, but I have heard that it is vogue among academics to disparage Tom while grudgingly admitting the book’s historical importance. Uncle Tom, they say, is a poor portrayal of an African-American in literature because he always submits meekly to the violence of his evil master Simon Legree, when he should (they think) rise up and fight. Other heroic slaves, such as Eliza and George Harris, do all they can to escape and fight the slave hunters, but Tom doesn’t. His resistance is of the civil kind, refusing to obey his master only when Legree’s orders directly contradict those of God (such as when Legree orders him to whip another slave, or to stop reading the Bible). The unjust punishments for this civil disobedience he accepts without complaint, and he is always eager to do good even to those who hate him. In the words of Wikipedia, “too eager to please white people.”

In actuality, Tom is one of the greatest Christian characters in American fiction, challenging our modern sensibilities with his faithful adherence to Christ’s command “Love your enemies as yourself.” Abuse upon abuse is heaped on his head, and his response is to pray for his attacker’s soul. Even as he is beaten viciously by two slave drivers, he cries out forgiveness to them and Simon Legree, proclaiming Christ’s love and the possibility of repentance unto his dying breath. And in my estimation, he shames all the other characters, even the good and heroic ones, by his attitudes, and challenges Christians in the real world to follow our Lord’s example to such a degree. His faith is shaken at times, and he suffers doubts like even the great towers of faith throughout history have, but he never forsakes his Savior. And even in his death, Christ honors his faith, for the two men who were beating him are so convicted by their sin and Tom’s unrelenting love, that they repent and are saved.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a perfect book. It is extremely melodramatic, relies often on stereotypes (of all sorts of dramatic characters), and sometimes the dialogue approaches the ridiculous (Eva’s death speech, anyone?). But Tom himself, in addition to being a living and breathing character, is also a man after God’s own heart, of whom it may be said he was a good and faithful servant of our Lord, even unto death.