Fourteen years and 2600 posts later, this blog is now closed. It's been a lot of fun. But I don't quite have the heart to keep the blog going after the death of Kim Fabricius. I won't delete the site, but there will be no further posts. Feel free to browse the archives – and thanks to all our loyal readers over the years.
Kim’s family sent me through his final batch of doodlings, posted posthumously here. (Kim, your last doodling is incorrect. But I won’t hold it against you.)
Two keys to self-knowledge: acknowledging that you are ashamed of yourself, and being able to make fun of yourself.
The superficial explanation for why some people don’t like tragedy is that it’s depressing; the deeper reason is that in tragedy there is no one to blame.
Most people couldn’t care less about why bad things happen to good people, they are only concerned with why bad things happen to me. Like Job, they think they’re the centre of the universe: theodicy reduced to cosmic egotism.
Title for a book on the doctrine of election in Calvin and Barth: Will and Grace.
The term “speaking in tongues” always makes me smile: it’s the irrepressible suggestion of oral sex.
The root of all misogyny (Girardianly speaking) is boys showing off.
“Don’t tell lies.” But the most insidious mendacity is mute.
Bible verse on a plaque in the birthing unit of a maternity ward: “Jesus said, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you an epidural.”
In Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, the sage and shrewd Dr Oreshchenkov observes that “it’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” So too for the clergy. A self-righteous minister is bad, a righteous minister worse.
Evangelical Americans: so understandably concerned about whether an unborn child has feelings, so indefensibly indifferent that a grown-up child – their president – doesn’t.
Combining funny-peculiar and funny-ha-ha, the Church of England seems to think that the Divine Comedy is a Punch and Judy pantomime.
Augustine is said to have remarked, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Well, better a whore than a harridan.
On Luke 10:25-37: In order to be a good Samaritan, one must first become a half-dead Jew: lest you succumb to pride, he is your focal identification.
“The widow? Easy pussy – go for it. The orphan? Little shits of color – normalize motherlessness (Herod, btw, was a classy guy, smart, tough). And the stranger? Keep the vermin out; otherwise, concentration camps.” —Trump’s exegesis of Exodus 22:22-24 and Deuteronomy 10:18.
“Make America Great Again.” Again? Better make America British again.
Having an American accent abroad during Trump’s Reign of Terror is like having a tattoo you had done when you were young and stupid but is now impossible to remove. The best you can do is to cover it up, e.g., by insisting, “No, I’m a Canadian.”
When The Complete Tweets of Donald Trump is published, in what section of American bookstores should it squat? Juvenile Fiction? Fantasy? Women’s Studies? Performing Arts? For cultural accuracy, I’d go for “Christianity.”
Death kills, but not for the hell of it. No, for death omnicide is an anti-ontological vocation: Deleo, ergo sum.
Since Cain slew Abel, you could call every homicide a copycat crime.
Christus solus, ergo Islamophilia.
My default facial expression in coffee houses has become the Smirk. Observing the washed having a flat white as a side with their iPhones – uninvited it floods my features. It’s only a matter of time (you’ll be pleased to know) before someone punches me in the face.
One of the pathologies of senescence is verbosity. You can still take off and cruise, but you can’t land the damn plane. You even forget that you are in the air – until you run out of fuel and crash.
“What do people think of me?” The question is both begged and vain: very few people bother to think about me at all. Why would they?
You think you know someone, but of course you don’t know them too. What might you not know about Jesus of Nazareth?
It is not the gift- and skill-sets – the intelligence and imagination, the range of reading, the elegance and wit – that separate the great theologian from the good one. The difference lies not in the brilliance but the defects. It takes a magnificent flaw to make a great theologian.
Ask me who I am and I will tell you my story. The genre, of course, is fiction.
Am I my own best interpreter? What a dumb and diabolical notion. Only God can truly interpret me, which he will do definitively on Judgement Day – deploying, I am confident, post-kritical theory.
What was the takeaway message for the great and the good after listening to that sermon at the royal wedding? The gospel according to John and Paul: “All you need is love (all together now) / All you need is love (everybody) / All you need is love, love / Love is all you need”. An uncomfortable reminder that what a preacher says and what a congregation hears may be two very different things.
A newspaper headline I quite like: “Kim’s a Seoul Man”.
BBC Breaking News (May 22nd): “Brief [Michael Cohen?] to moon Trump on handling Kim”. Oops, sorry: that should be “Moon to Brief Trump on handling Kim”.
Trump’s annotation of Titus 3:2 in his bedside Bible: “Against everything our country stands for. Most over-rated apostle in history. A total loser. Very sad.”
Might Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why not? Though ISIS will present some stiff competition. North Korea, Iran, Israel/Palestine: better the Orwell Peace Prize.
Information is power. Alas, so too is misinformation.
God and I have an admirable arrangement: I need someone to love me and God wants someone to love. We’re the perfect odd couple.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” “Absolutely,” agreed the first four disciples: “you cannot worship both Cod and Mammon.”
Following the trajectory, expect praise music to trend as liturgical karaoke.
Revenge is a dish best served with either apomorphine or xylazine.
What’s the difference between parental abuse and neglect? The difference, respectively, between knowing and not knowing whether your children are spending most of their free time on-line.
AI may be the future but another AI is already an everyday reality. I mean Artificial Imbecility: you see it in people whose iPhone is a prosthesis.
Everything passes; nothing lasts. But there are some moments – you know those moments, all but forgotten but suddenly adventitiously triggered – that are with you all your life. Unless you stop and take a picture of them with your goddamn iPhone.
Why do I write – doodlings, propositions, sermons, hymns, whatever? Answer: authorial itch. Of course scratching only makes the pruritus worse, and can lead to all kinds of existential and spiritual lesions.
Waiters – even if the service is terrible, always be kind to them. Not because of WWJD, but because you don’t want your entrée heavily seasoned with gob.
That life can unravel so quickly, uncontrollably, and irreparably – that is the tragic. And faith? Faith does not alleviate, on the contrary, it intensifies tragic affliction. Over the abyss, faith hangs by the thread of hope alone.
The Christian is indeed simul iustus et peccator. He is also simul laetus et miser.
I may or may not be a “real Christian”, but a Christian who tells me I’m not is definitely not.
Who, in Adam, is more likely to understand me better than anyone else? My mother or father, sister or brother, spouse, partner, friend – or perhaps my enemy? No, someone who does not know me: a great novelist.
The best that I can say about me is that I am a placeholder for what I will become.
What is the basis of both Christian ethics and vocation? “What can I do for you?” (Bob Dylan).
Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.
SHAKESPEARE 5. Macbeth – hell 6. King Lear (I) – purgatory 7. King Lear (II) – purgatory 8. The Tempest – paradise
MILTON 9. Samson Agonistes – purgatory 10. Paradise Lost (I) – hell 11. Paradise Lost (II) – paradise 12. Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory
Some other observations about the three authors:
The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).
The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing metaphors with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) is a great example: it depicts spiritual reality by adhering very closely to the letter of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air."
Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.
I don’t want to pick the best books of the year. My reading lately has been too eclectic for anything like that. These days I rely mostly on audiobooks. So my reading gravitates towards whatever happens to be available on audible.com, or whatever is performed by a good narrator. (I have developed a zero tolerance policy for poor narration: I will return an audiobook for refund within five minutes if the narrator does not please me.)
From time to time I still take up a physical book and read it with my eyes. After so many audiobooks I am intrigued to re-discover the quite distinctive pleasures of silent reading. Recently I read nearly all of Stefan Zweig’s short stories and novellas in the old way, silently turning the pages as I enfolded my spirit within that special canopy of solitude. But most of the books listed here I read sociably, with my ears, in the consoling and challenging presence of a human voice. I like it so much. Am I the only one? Or is the burgeoning audiobook industry reviving an ancient culture of sociable reading? Will some future memoirist note with astonishment the sight of someone reading alone in silence, as Augustine did when he saw Ambrose reading in Milan? "His eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest" (Confessions 6.3.3).
Anyway, these are the books that I found most interesting and most rewarding in the past year. In case you are looking for something to read – and who is not looking, at all times and in all circumstances, for something to read? – I’ve added a note to each one to help you decide if that book suits your particular ailment. And, after much soul-searching, I have also nominated my Most Interesting Book of the Year.
THEOLOGY & ETHICS
The Annotated Luther, volume 1: The Roots of Reform (2015). Read this if you think protestants were to blame for the reformation.
Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). Read this if you think capitalism is evil and the pre-capitalist world was a haven of virtue.
Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (2015). Read this if you think social trinitarianism is the greatest thing since trinitarianism.
Mark Chapman, Theology at War and Peace: English Theology and Germany in the First World War (2017). Read this if you’re interested in Troeltsch, or if you think only the Germans were rabid nationalists.
Joseph Ratzinger, Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2007). Read this if you’ve ever wondered where reason went.
H. Richard Niebuhr, “Theology—Not Queen But Servant,” an essay on theology and the university in The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (2015). Read this if you think theology ever was, or ever ought to be, the queen of the sciences.
Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (2010). Read this if, like me, you used to believe Reinhold Niebuhr when he said he was departing sharply from the Social Gospel tradition.
Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (2015). Read this.
Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (2017). Read this if you don’t believe in the soul, or if you would like to believe in the soul but don’t know how.
Sam Harris, Lying (2011). Read this if you have ever told a lie.
Dallas G. Denery II, The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment (2015). Read this if the previous book makes you want to learn more about the history of lying. The patristic stuff in the first chapter is weak but it's really interesting once he gets to medieval theology and its relation to the falsehoods and perplexities of courtly life.
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942). Read this if you think morality and the virtues have declined shockingly in the twentieth century. His account of prostitution in the nineteenth century is quite harrowing and should make you cry tears of joy over every unwed sexual partnership.
Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53). Read this if you want a gripping tale in which the righteous prevail against a vastly superior foe. Churchill received the Nobel Prize in Literature for this book, and you can see why as soon as you start the first page. The audiobook read by Christian Rodska (in four volumes) is wonderful.
William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). Read this if 45 hours listening to Churchill was just not enough.
Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (2017). Read this if you think open borders are Good and controlled borders are Bad. Whether or not you share the author’s pessimism, it’s an interesting account of the way recent European (especially German) history has been shaped by the “tyranny of guilt” over past wrongs.
Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014). Read this if you’d like to understand how different civilisations understand their global mission, and how the internet might be changing all this.
Denise Levertov, Oblique Prayers (1986). If I have to tell you why you should read this, then you’re probably the kind of person who won’t read it anyway.
Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (1992). Read this if you want something easier than Denise Levertov.
Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord (2015). Read this if you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to be just like King David when I grow up.
Stefan Zweig, Collected Novellas (2016) and Collected Stories (2013). Read this if you like to finish a story in one sitting. The novellas are especially good: try his Chess Story for a taster.
G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909). Read this if you want to laugh your arse off as you follow the swashbuckling adventures of an atheist and a Catholic who set out to destroy one another and become (spoiler alert) BFFs. Everyone talks about Father Brown and The Man Who Was Thursday, but this one is my favourite story by Chesterton. And the audio reading by Gildart Jackson is as entertaining as you could hope for.
OTHER COOL STUFF THAT DOESN’T FIT IN THE OTHER CATEGORIES
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). Read this if you’ve ever expressed moral outrage at something somebody said on social media.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (2016). Read this because he’s the Boss. It’s better on audio because he reads the book himself: and the man has a nice voice, I’m not the first person to think so.
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (1971). Read this if you like movies and have ever tried to think about them.
And finally ... drum roll ... the Most Interesting Book of the Year award goes to:
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). This is hands down the most interesting thing I read this year. I’ve been reading Freud for years but for some reason had never got around to this one even though it’s his magnum opus. Maybe I was put off by the claim (a scandalous falsehood, as it turns out) that Freud merely finds sex in every dream. Anyway whatever you think of Freud’s theory, this is a marvellous feat of scrupulous observation, breath-taking intellectual adventurousness, and disarming candour. Most of the dreams analysed are Freud’s own, and he investigates his hidden desires with an amazing lack of defensiveness. Well done, Sigmund Freud, and congratulations on writing such an interesting and original book. Well that’s all from me. Adieu, 2017! Adieu, Sydney!