On one hand we have 21 poor Egyptian martyrs who went to their reward calling on the name of Christ as they were beheaded by masked barbarians. On the other hand we have JD Hall*, a plump Reformed Baptist from Montana, and his friends, condemning anyone who deviates slightly from his own doctrinal system.
The Copts (the ancient Egyptian church) are not Christians, says Hall*, because they “believe in salvation-by-works.” Hall’s* supporting evidence for this is shaky, but according to him the Copts are like other non-Protestant Christian groups in that they “do not share our faith in Jesus” and prefer traditional communal expressions of faith, such as liturgy, creeds, and fasting, to personal expressions of faith like blogging about doctrine.
“Confessions matter.” Yes, and these martyrs confessed Christ with their mouths even in the face of death. But you will not even confess them as brothers. Surely the blood of the same Christ cannot flow in your veins.
The Islamic State can only kill the body. You think you have the power to consign these martyrs souls to hell.
Do you have the authority to judge these men? Let us see who has received the authority to judge:
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4 ESV)
So I think we can be certain that the Coptic martyrs will be exalted in the kingdom of God. But what can we say for the Calvinist connoisseur? Hall* may not be going to hell, although that would be poetic. He already inhabits a hell of his own manufacture, cut off by his words and actions from the living body of Christ.
Today’s essay by Sordello brought back a couple of thoughts I had regarding the kerfuffle over Marilynne Robinson’s dismissive comments about Flannery O’Connor and the ensuing negative reviews of Robinson’s own recent novel, Lila. I have not yet read Lila so I can’t comment on that. But Robinson is one of my treasured influences, along with O’Connor, Roger Scruton, and others. (I reviewed Scruton’s Beauty a couple of years back. Along with Robinson’s The Death of Adam, it’s in my personal “top 10.”)
Every reader shares, to some degree, the tendency to look for what we want in a book, and to be disappointed if we find something else. I had a disappointing experience recently when I read Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The first half of the novel was thrilling and evocative, I thought a real triumph in postmodern literature. I didn’t like the ending. Set in the prosperous postwar 1950s, the latter half of the book expressed a kind of spiritual malaise and depression which was quite a contrast to the hope and magic of the beginning. Continue reading Brief thoughts on negative criticism
“The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world. It is, indeed, the function of soul to behold things that are outside the body, but it cannot energize or move them. A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in His human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it.” (17)
“We are agreed that a dead person can do nothing: yet the Savior works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ’s presence, all their ostentation barren and void. By the sign of the cross, on the contrary, all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from earth to heaven. Whom, then, are we to call dead? Shall we call Christ dead, Who effects all this? But the dead have not the faculty to effect anything. Or shall we call death dead, which effects nothing whatever, but lies as lifeless and ineffective as are the evil spirits and the idols? The Son of God, ‘living and effective,’ is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it is the idols and the evil spirits who are dead, not He. No room for doubt remains, therefore, concerning the resurrection of His body.” (31)
Two days after the incident I have described I met her [Lizaveta Nicolaevna] in a numerous company, who were driving out on some expedition in three coaches, surrounded by others on horseback. She beckoned to me, stopped her carriage, and pressingly urged me to join their party. A place was found for me in the carriage, and she laughingly introduced me to her companions, gorgeously attired ladies, and explained to me that they were all going on a very interesting expedition. She was laughing, and seemed somewhat excessively happy. Just lately she had been very lively, even playful, in fact.
The expedition was certainly an eccentric one. They were all going to a house the other side of the river, to the merchant Sevastyanov’s. In the lodge of this merchant’s house our saint and prophet, Semyon Yakovlevitch, who was famous not only amongst us but in the surrounding provinces and even in Petersburg and Moscow, had been living for the last ten years, in retirement, ease, and comfort. Every one went to see him, especially visitors to the neighbourhood, extracting from him some crazy utterance, bowing down to him, and leaving an offering. These offerings were sometimes considerable, and if Semyon Yakovlevitch did not himself assign them to some other purpose were piously sent to some church or more often to the monastery of Our Lady. A monk from the monastery was always in waiting upon Semyon Yakovlevitch with this object.
All were in expectation of great amusement. No one of the party had seen Semyon Yakovlevitch before, except Lyamshin, who declared that the saint had given orders that he should be driven out with a broom, and had with his own hand flung two big baked potatoes after him. Among the party I noticed Pyotr Stepanovitch, again riding a hired Cossack horse, on which he sat extremely badly, and Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, also on horseback. The latter did not always hold aloof from social diversions, and on such occasions always wore an air of gaiety, although, as always, he spoke little and seldom. When our party had crossed the bridge and reached the hotel of the town, some one suddenly announced that in one of the rooms of the hotel they had just found a traveller who had shot himself, and were expecting the police. At once the suggestion was made that they should go and look at the suicide. The idea met with approval: our ladies had never seen a suicide. I remember one of them said aloud on the occasion, “Everything’s so boring, one can’t be squeamish over one’s amusements, as long as they’re interesting.” Only a few of them remained outside. The others went in a body into the dirty corridor, and amongst the others I saw, to my amazement, Lizaveta Nikolaevna. The door of the room was open, and they did not, of course, dare to prevent our going in to look at the suicide. He was quite a young lad, not more than nineteen. He must have been very good-looking, with thick fair hair, with a regular oval face, and a fine, pure forehead. The body was already stiff, and his white young face looked like marble. On the table lay a note, in his handwriting, to the effect that no one was to blame for his death, that he had killed himself because he had “squandered” four hundred roubles. The word “squandered” was used in the letter; in the four lines of his letter there were three mistakes in spelling. A stout country gentleman, evidently a neighbour, who had been staying in the hotel on some business of his own, was particularly distressed about it. From his words it appeared that the boy had been sent by his family, that is, a widowed mother, sisters, and aunts, from the country to the town in order that, under the supervision of a female relation in the town, he might purchase and take home with him various articles for the trousseau of his eldest sister, who was going to be married. The family had, with sighs of apprehension, entrusted him with the four hundred roubles, the savings of ten years, and had sent him on his way with exhortations, prayers, and signs of the cross. The boy had till then been well-behaved and trustworthy. Arriving three days before at the town, he had not gone to his relations, had put up at the hotel, and gone straight to the club in the hope of finding in some back room a “travelling banker,” or at least some game of cards for money. But that evening there was no “banker” there or gambling going on. Going back to the hotel about midnight he asked for champagne, Havana cigars, and ordered a supper of six or seven dishes. But the champagne made him drunk, and the cigar made him sick, so that he did not touch the food when it was brought to him, and went to bed almost unconscious. Waking next morning as fresh as an apple, he went at once to the gipsies’ camp, which was in a suburb beyond the river, and of which he had heard the day before at the club. He did not reappear at the hotel for two days. At last, at five o’clock in the afternoon of the previous day, he had returned drunk, had at once gone to bed, and had slept till ten o’clock in the evening. On waking up he had asked for a cutlet, a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, and some grapes, paper, and ink, and his bill. No one noticed anything special about him; he was quiet, gentle, and friendly. He must have shot himself at about midnight, though it was strange that no one had heard the shot, and they only raised the alarm at midday, when, after knocking in vain, they had broken in the door. The bottle of Chateau d’Yquem was half empty, there was half a plateful of grapes left too. The shot had been fired from a little three-chambered revolver, straight into the heart. Very little blood had flowed. The revolver had dropped from his hand on to the carpet. The boy himself was half lying in a corner of the sofa. Death must have been instantaneous. There was no trace of the anguish of death in the face; the expression was serene, almost happy, as though there were no cares in his life. All our party stared at him with greedy curiosity. In every misfortune of one’s neighbour there is always something cheering for an onlooker—whoever he may be. Our ladies gazed in silence, their companions distinguished themselves by their wit and their superb equanimity. One observed that his was the best way out of it, and that the boy could not have hit upon anything more sensible; another observed that he had had a good time if only for a moment. A third suddenly blurted out the inquiry why people had begun hanging and shooting themselves among us of late, as though they had suddenly lost their roots, as though the ground were giving way under every one’s feet. People looked coldly at this raisonneur. Then Lyamshin, who prided himself on playing the fool, took a bunch of grapes from the plate; another, laughing, followed his example, and a third stretched out his hand for the Chateau d’Yquem. But the head of police arriving checked him, and even ordered that the room should be cleared. As every one had seen all they wanted they went out without disputing, though Lyamshin began pestering the police captain about something. The general merrymaking, laughter, and playful talk were twice as lively on the latter half of the way.
From Demons (The Possessed) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, trans. 1882 by Constance Garnett.
From The Possessed (Demons) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The following conversation takes place between Shatov, a former agitator and now a believer in “the Russian God;” and Stavrogin, the princely but self-destructive son of a nobleman, who made Shatov’s acquaintance when they both were members of a revolutionary society. We have put some sentences in bold for special emphasis.
“Do you know,” he [Shatov] began, with flashing eyes, almost menacingly, bending right forward in his chair, raising the forefinger of his right hand above him (obviously unaware that he was doing so), “do you know who are the only ‘god-bearing’ people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world… Do you know which is that people and what is its name?”
The famous battle-cry “Man is born free,” is the greatest nonsense if it is taken literally as a declaration of original and natural independence.
Man is born and remains throughout his life in dependence. At his birth he is completely helpless; unable to subsist by himself, he has to be nourished and guided by his parents, and his state of utter dependence on them lasts much longer in the case of the young human being than in that of the young of any other animal—indeed it continues the longer the more advanced and admirable is the society in which he is born. Man arrives at adult age and puts on the characteristics of a finished man only by means of the prolonged efforts of others; thereby obligations are created for him of which he will be the more sensible the more he deserves the name of man.
A man’s dependence does not cease when he enters adult life. Thanks to the habits and to the store of knowledge and skills which he has received from others, he is able to take his place in an association where his activity, just because it fits into a whole, is able to assure him fruits of every kind—fruits which, unassisted, he could not get himself. . . .
For this reason every individual with a spark of imagination must feel deeply indebted to these many others, the living and the dead, the known and the unknown. So logical is this piety as regards human association that it is found among peoples incomparably less advanced than our own; and it is a major folly of modern times to fill the individual with ideas of what society owes to him rather than of what he owes to society. The wise man knows himself for debtor, and his actions will be inspired by a deep sense of obligation. . . .
If every man is a debtor, then the feeling of obligation, so utterly incompatible with using our powers as we please, should never leave him. Not for a moment is he completely out of debt. His energies and his time are pledged to those countless associates by whose service and collaboration he lives as he does live, and to that smaller number who are directly dependent on him, whose potentialities it is for him to actualise, even as his own were actualised. How can he ever feel himself free? Never, if freedom consists in exemption from obligation. But it is in fact something quite other.
A man is free when and to the extent that he is his own judge of his obligations, when none but himself compels him to fulfil them. A man is free when he acts sponte sua, spontaneously, as the executor of a judgment passed in foro interno, in the forum of his own heart.
(Bertrand de Jouvenel: Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good, 316-17. Trans. J.F. Huntington. Liberty Fund 1999; originally English publication 1957.)
“The real power of the English aristocrats has lain in exactly the opposite of tradition. The simple key to the power of our upper classes is this: that they have always kept carefully on the side of what is called Progress. They have always been up to date, and this comes quite easy to an aristocracy. For the aristocracy are the supreme instances of that frame of mind of which we spoke just now. Novelty is to them a luxury verging on a necessity. They, above all, are so bored with the past and with the present, that they gape, with a horrible hunger, for the future.
But whatever else the great lords forgot they never forgot that it was their business to stand for the new things, for whatever was being most talked about among university dons or fussy financiers. Thus they were on the side of the Reformation against the Church, of the Whigs against the Stuarts, of the Baconian science against the old philosophy, of the manufacturing system against the operatives, and (to-day) of the increased power of the State against the old-fashioned individualists. In short, the rich are always modern; it is their business.”
(G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, ch. 10)
The corrective, not only of this modern desire for fame, but of all highly developed individuality, is found in ridicule, especially when expressed in the victorious form of wit. We read in the Middle Ages how hostile armies, princes, and nobles, provoked one another with symbolical insult, and how the defeated party was loaded with symbolical outrage. Here and there, too, under the influence of classical literature, wit began to be used as a weapon in theological disputes, and the poetry of Provence produced a whole class of satirical compositions. Even the Minnesanger, as their political poems show, could adopt this tone when necessary. But wit could not be an independent element in life till its appropriate victim, the developed individual with personal pretensions, had appeared. It weapons were then by no means limited to the tongue and the pen, but included tricks and practical jokes—the so-called ‘burle’ and ‘beffe’—which form a chief subject of many collections of novels.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (S. G. C. Middlecore, trans.), Part 2, ch. 3, “Ridicule and Wit.”
For my own part, let other men judge of what I have written; though yet, unless an overweening opinion of myself may have made me blind in my own cause, I have praised folly, but not altogether foolishly. And now to say somewhat to that other cavil, of biting. This liberty was ever permitted to all men’s wits, to make their smart, witty reflections on the common errors of mankind, and that too without offense, as long as this liberty does not run into licentiousness; which makes me the more admire the tender ears of the men of this age, that can away with solemn titles. No, you’ll meet with some so preposterously religious that they will Sooner endure the broadest scoffs even against Christ himself than hear the Pope or a prince be touched in the least, especially if it be anything that concerns their profit; whereas he that so taxes the lives of men, without naming anyone in particular, whither, I pray, may he be said to bite, or rather to teach and admonish? Or otherwise, I beseech you, under how many notions do I tax myself? Besides, he that spares no sort of men cannot be said to be angry with anyone in particular, but the vices of all. And therefore, if there shall happen to be anyone that shall say he is hit, he will but discover either his guilt or fear. Saint Jerome sported in this kind with more freedom and greater sharpness, not sparing sometimes men’s very name. But I, besides that I have wholly avoided it, I have so moderated my style that the understanding reader will easily perceive my endeavors herein were rather to make mirth than bite. Nor have I, after the example of Juvenal, raked up that forgotten sink of filth and ribaldry, but laid before you things rather ridiculous than dishonest. And now, if there be anyone that is yet dissatisfied, let him at least remember that it is no dishonor to be discommended by Folly; and having brought her in speaking, it was but fit that I kept up the character of the person. But why do I run over these things to you, a person so excellent an advocate that no man better defends his client, though the cause many times be none of the best? Farewell, my best disputant More, and stoutly defend your Moriae.
Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Sir Thomas More introducing “In Praise of Folly”
It is my belief, that social intercourse cannot long continue what it has been, now that we have subtracted from it so important and vivifying an element as fire-light. The effects will be more perceptible on our children, and the generations that shall succeed them, than on ourselves, the mechanism of whose life may remain unchanged, though its spirit be far other than it was. The sacred trust of the household-fire has been transmitted in unbroken succession from the earliest ages, and faithfully cherished, in spite of every discouragement, such as the Curfew law of the Norman conquerors; until, in these evil days, physical science has nearly succeeded in extinguishing it. But we at least have our youthful recollections tinged with the glow of the hearth, and our life-long habits and associations arranged on the principle of a mutual bond in the domestic fire. Therefore, though the sociable friend be for ever departed, yet in a degree he will be spiritually present to us; and still more will the empty forms, which were once full of his rejoicing presence, continue to rule our manners. We shall draw our chairs together, as we and our forefathers have been wont, for thousands of years back, and sit around some blank and empty corner of the room, babbling, with unreal cheerfulness, of topics suitable to the homely fireside. A warmth from the past—from the ashes of by-gone years, and the raked-up embers of long ago—will sometimes thaw the ice about our hearts. But it must be otherwise with our successors. On the most favorable supposition, they will be acquainted with the fireside in no better shape than that of the sullen stove; and more probably, they will have grown up amid furnace-heat, in houses which might be fancied to have their foundation over the infernal pit, whence sulphurous streams and unbreathable exhalations ascend through the apertures of the floor. There will be nothing to attract these poor children to one centre. They will never behold one another through that peculiar medium of vision—the ruddy gleam of blazing wood or bituminous coal—which gives the human spirit so deep an insight into its fellows, and melts all humanity into one cordial heart of hearts. Domestic life—if it may still be termed domestic—will seek its separate corners, and never gather itself into groups. The easy gossip—the merry, yet unambitious jest—the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way–the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word—will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of a debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with a fatal frost.
In classic times, the exhortation to fight “pro aris et focis”—for the altars and the hearths—was considered the strongest appeal that could be made to patriotism. And it seemed an immortal utterance; for all subsequent ages and people have acknowledged its force, and responded to it with the full portion of manhood that Nature had assigned to each. . . . It has been our task to uproot the hearth. What further reform is left for our children to achieve, unless they overthrow the altar too? And by what appeal, hereafter, when the breath of hostile armies may mingle with the pure, cold breezes of our country, shall we attempt to rouse up native valor? Fight for your hearths? There will be none throughout the land. Fight for your Stoves! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that it may shatter the abomination all to pieces!
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Fire-Worship,” p. 846-48, in Tales and Sketches (New York: The Library of America, 1982).