Hillary Mantel on A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed is a lucid description of an obscure, muddled process, a process almost universal, one with no logic and no timetable. It is an honest attempt to write about aspects of the human and the divine which, he fears, “won’t go into language at all”. At the heart of the enterprise is his quarrel with God, and in the end God wins, first philosophically, then emotionally.

But there is a puzzle as to how to categorise the book: where should it be shelved? Lewis’s reputation being what it is, it would be natural to place it under “religion”. But many of the people who need it would not find it there because, like Lewis, they are angrily running away from God, hurtling to abandon a being who seems to have abandoned them. It is more a book about doubt than about faith; it does not warn, exhort or seek to convince. Anger finds a voice in this book, more anger than the faithful are usually able to acknowledge. But it doesn’t belong in the “self-help” section either: it has no bullet points, suggests no programme, offers no cheering anecdotes.

What it does do is to make the reader live more consciously. Testimony from a sensitive and eloquent witness, it should be placed on a shelf that doesn’t exist, in the section called “The Human Condition”. It offers an interrogation of experience and a glimmer of hard-won hope. It allows one bewildered mind to reach out to another. Death is no barrier to that.

Hillary Mantel, ‘Re-reading C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed’, The Guardian, 27 December 2014

Happy Christmas from the Middle East

I will never forget the day in Baghdad when we had some visitors. They had come to see what it was really like for Christians in Iraq. They were so surprised by how happy the thousands of people were in our congregation. “How can you be so happy when you are surrounded by suicide bombs, mortar rockets and such violence?” One of our young people answered the statement. “You see when you have lost everything, Jesus is all you have got left.

All you have got left is the love of that refugee child. That to us in the Middle East is all that matters this Christmas. The terrorism has got so bad in Iraq that I have had to leave. So I have moved to the other place where I work, Bethlehem. That little town where Jesus first came. Two-thousand years after he first came, he is still everything to the people. He is still everything to our Christians in Iraq and he can still be everything to us. You see when Christmas is over, when you have had all your presents and food, Jesus is all we have got left.

Canon Andrew White, “Happy Christmas from the Middle East” (via writing in the dust)

Suspension of Disbelief and Research

According to Friedel, the historian, scientists rely on the stubborn conviction that an obvious obstacle can be overcome. “There is a degree of suspension of disbelief that a lot of good research has to engage in,” he said. “Part of the art—and it is art—comes from knowing just when it makes sense to entertain that suspension of disbelief, at least momentarily, and when it’s just sheer fantasy.” Lord Kelvin, famous for installing telegraph cables on the Atlantic seabed, was clearly capable of overlooking obstacles. But not always. “Before his death, in 1907, Lord Kelvin carefully, carefully calculated that a heavier-than-air flying machine would never be possible,” Friedel says. “So we always have to have some humility. A couple of bicycle mechanics could come along and prove us wrong.”

John Colapinto, ‘Material Question’, The New Yorker, 22 December, 2014

The Past is Strange

For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings.

The story Algeo tells begins in 1860, at the start of the Civil War, when a New Englander named Edward Payson Weston made a facetious bet with a friend that, if Lincoln won the Presidential election, he would walk all the way from the State House in Boston to the unfinished Capitol, in Washington, in ten days. Lincoln won, and, ten days before the inaugural, Weston set off. Though he didn’t get there quite in time, his progress, chronicled by the newspapers, enthralled a nation in need of some small fun, and he became an improbable American hero, a kind of Lindbergh of the corns and calluses. Liking his new celebrity, and the money it brought, Weston decided to keep a good thing going and, when the war ended, began to engage in competitive, six-day (never on Sunday) walking marathons in Chicago, New York, and, eventually, London.

For the next two decades, while baseball burbled around the amateur edges and boxing went on in the shadows, walking really was the dominant spectator sport in America, and Weston its central figure. He had the brains to adopt a singular and consistent costume, a gentleman’s gear of hunting trousers, boots, and riding crop. In time, a poor Irish immigrant to America, Daniel O’Leary, emerged as his opposite in style, and so his great rival; together, they staged walking races, symbolic class contests, immigrant vs. native, over several long sessions in several big towns. O’Leary was, in a Jackie Robinson-like way, perceived as a credit to his race, restoring the honor of the Irish, stained most recently, in Chicago, by the episode of another O’Leary and her cow. Working-class enthusiasm for the contests was so keen that indoor stadiums were needed. In New York, P. T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome, in the East Twenties, got covered, first by a tent and then, soon afterward, by a real roof, in part to contain and show off the walking marathons. (Eventually, that Hippodrome evolved into the original, sadly lost Madison Square Garden, where walkers walked, and where, in 1879, Weston, freshly returned from his London exploits, was given a hero’s welcome.)

Adam Gopnik, ‘Heaven’s Gaits’The New Yorker, 1 Sept, 2014

Adele Reinhartz on the dilemma of the ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’ debates

Mason is surely correct that ioudaios was a complex term that carried ethnic,
political, cultic, and many other dimensions, even if the jury is still out on the
existence or non-existence of religion in antiquity (see Shaye Cohen, Cynthia
Baker, Seth Schwartz, and Daniel R. Schwartz, who have more nuanced
positions on the matter). But why broaden the referent of Judean from its primary
geographical meaning when there is a perfectly good English word — Jew —
ready to hand? As the Pew Report and many previous surveys and sociological
studies have shown, Jewish identity includes the same elements — including
ethnic, political, cultural, genealogical, and, yes, geographical — that, in
Mason’s view, are conveyed by the Greek terminology. To define Jew solely or
even primarily in religious terms is simply wrong. Further, erasing Jews from
Jewish antiquity, while presumably solving one historical problem, creates
another historical dilemma: how to account for the sudden appearance of Jews
in late antiquity as a fully-formed ethnic and religious group that saw itself —
and was seen by others — as continuous with the ioudaioi of the Greco-Roman
era? Scholars of the Greco-Roman period may not feel called upon to answer
such questions, but the dilemma cannot be ignored.

Adele Reinhartz, ‘The Vanishing Jews of Antiquity’, MRB, 24 June 2014

One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is just how much the socio-religious phenomenon we call ‘Judaism’ was itself a matter of intense debate and negotiation in the first century CE. As Reinhartz goes on to emphasize in her response to Reed, a certain anachronism is perhaps inevitable in historical work, yet I wonder if some approaches don’t risk more distortion than others. In other words, the risks of ‘atomizing’ linguistics, ‘parallelomania’, and anachronistic ‘imposition’ of frameworks are well-known, but I wonder if the shape and scope of certain types of scholarly theses and monographs increases rather than attenuates exposure to these risks.

‘There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.’

Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.” Even after graduation, élite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduating classes of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.

Nathan Heller, ‘Poison Ivy: Are élite colleges bad for the soul?’The New Yorker, Sept. 1, 2014

Annette Yoshiko Reed on atomizing approaches to language

The recent Jew and Judean Forum at Marginalia Review of Books is worth careful consideration for anyone interested in ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. Also, thanks to the editor Timothy Michael Law, you can read the posts here or download them in handy ebook format or pdf.

I found the two paragraphs below by Annette Yoshiko Reed in her contribution “Ioudaios before and after ‘Religion'” particularly helpful.

The focus on word-level translation reflects a longstanding tendency in Biblical Studies to treat the etymologies and histories of specific words as direct windows onto ancient thought — with the first known occurrence of a word in writing too often conflated with the birth of a concept. [See Malcolm Lowe’s essay in the forum.] If such approaches feel natural, even despite their bizarre atomization of language, it is in part because modern scholars of ancient ioudaioi have long delighted in quests for the “origins” or “invention” of concepts now common in the West. Teleology, of course, makes for poor history, and presentism courts anachronism. Yet their enduring power may help to explain the appeal of reducing the meaning of ioudaios to a question of when. To assert a moment before which a word bore a now-familiar meaning, after all, is also to evoke the point after which we might confidently presume what it means to us today.

For the limits of such approaches, we need look no further than to the use of the English term “Jew.” Those who prefer to translate first-century uses of ioudaios as “Judean” argue that “Jew” is a religious affiliation and therefore anachronistic prior to the Christian invention of “religion” in the third or fourth centuries. But this line of reasoning, as Reinhartz notes, presumes that “Jew” denotes a religious affiliation for “us” — an assumption not all English speakers who self-identify as Jews today share, as 2013 Pew polls made dramatically clear. The persistence of multiple meanings can be seen even in the scholarly debate about ioudaioi. If anything, the debate demonstrates how the term “Jew” can seem self-evidently religious to some people from the very same time and culture (and even the same profession and similar education) as others who understand it as self-evidently ethnic, political, cultural, or otherwise not or not just religious. It is not simply that the history of the meaning of ioudaios might be told differently if we chose a different end-point, such as the modern equivalents in Hebrew or Japanese or German. Even the English term “Jew” resists reduction to a single meaning at the end of a single story.


The point here …

The point here is not to suggest that the NRA and its allies are a threat to American democracy itself. Rather, it’s that they’re a threat to the quality of our democracy. Democratic theorists tend to see open, rational public deliberation as a key element of a successful democratic order: it helps citizens make honest and informed choices about which policies and politicians are worth supporting, about which values they want to shape the system that’s supposed to represent them. The move to cast every gun regulation as a threat to the Second Amendment is opposed to that democratic debate. It’s a stalking horse for the specter of tyranny, a fantastical conversation-ender rather than a point of view worth taking seriously.

Worth reading:  http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/rethinking-the-right-to-bear-arms/ (via @ayjay)


I read the excerpt below from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book “My Struggle” in a review of it by James Wood (who happens to be from Durham) in the New Yorker.  These days, I can relate.  There is so much I want to do that it is a struggle not to see the routine of everyday life, especially with my kids, as an obstacle.  I never understood why people would tell me, “Don’t work too much when the kids are little, because you’ll never get the time back…it goes so fast.”  I never wanted to work more when my wife was responsible for most of daily routine for the kids.  Now, it is a constant temptation.

Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/08/13/120813crbo_books_wood#ixzz2GKo6eozg

Then Bishop H.C.G. Moule Remembers J.B. Lightfoot

I came first into his presence when in June i860 1 called on him at his rooms the rooms which had been Isaac Newton’s, nearly two centuries before and asked to be entered on his list of freshmen. Desperately shy was I.  And he, if I do not mistake, felt a little shy too, for it was his nature so to be. But though a Cambridge Tutor certainly in those days could not possibly be intimate with all his pupils, he exercised from the very first a very powerful influence on me by the magnetism of the good greatness of his personality, and the truehearted kindness which looked always through his reserve. All through those years, he was laying the deep foundations of his vast theological knowledge, chiefly in the vacations, and (during term time) by night. No man ever loitered so late in the Great Court that he did not see Lightfoot’s lamp burning in his study window, though no man either was so regularly present in morning Chapel at seven o’clock that he did not find Lightfoot always there with him.
From George R. Eden and F.C. Macdonald (eds.), Lightfoot of Durham:  Memories and Appreciations (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1933), 5.