At It Again

John Wilson is at it again! Editing, that is. His new magazine, Education and Culture, is up and running. Among the moving parts of his new endeavor are names familiar to readers of his previous, much beloved publication, Books & Culture. One is my former professor Alan Jacobs. Here’s a snippet of his review of The Restless Clock:

Albertus Magnus, the great medieval bishop and theologian, had built a metal man. This automaton answered any question put to it and even, some said, dictated to Albertus hundreds of pages of theology he later claimed as his own. But the mechanical theologian met a sad end when one of Albertus’s students grew exasperated by “its great babbling and chattering” and smashed it to pieces. This student’s name was Thomas Aquinas.

The story is far too good to be true, though its potential uses are so many and varied that I am going to try to believe it. The image of Thomas, the apostle of human thought and of the limits of human thought, who wrote the greatest body of theology ever composed and then at the end of his life dismissed it all as “straw,” smashing this simulacrum of philosophy, this Meccano idol—this is too perfect an exemplum not to reward our contemplation. By ending the android’s “babbling and chattering” and replacing it with patient, careful, and rigorous dialectical disputation, Thomas restored human beings to their rightful place atop the visible part of the Great Chain of Being, and refuted, before they even arose, Diderot’s claims that humans are just immensely sophisticated machines.

— Alan Jacobs

Read the rest here

Salt and Fat and Acid and Heat

 

I don’t often listen to podcasts but this one with Samin Nosrat, author of the recently released ‘uncookbook’ “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” is worth a listen. Though it focuses on her book and unconventional approach to cooking (like jazz; lots of improvisation), there’s plenty to enjoy in the periphery, including how she landed a job at Chez Panisse, why she needs both cooking and writing to stay sane, and teaching Michael Pollan to cook. 

You can find more on Nosrat and the book on the Longform page or over at the book’s site

Gilead

 There are few books I can confidently say have changed me. Gilead is one of them. Near the end of the novel John Ames, a pastor and the protaganist, writes these words: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” I’ve often imagined the Christian life as a candle illumining a small patch of the world’s darkness. This image has its merits and, of course, biblical precedent. Gilead showed me the world as John Ames saw it, a world suffused with God’s light. It taught me that whatever the world’s shadows—and reading Gilead most recently I found quite a few I’d missed the first time—God’s light shines everywhere. To look at the world as if this were so, to expect light, is to see truly. 

Rowan Williams was once asked if there was any contemporary author that matched C.S. Lewis in rendering what faith feels like. He suggested Marilynne Robinson. This reader, for one, agrees. Gilead and its sister novels are books I look forward to re-reading many times. 

On Obama’s Legacy

 

In a strange way, I think Obama will be remembered both as one of America’s better presidents—he wasn’t a letch, he wasn’t a moron, and he managed to keep the sub rosa hum of our endless imperial wars ever so slightly abstracted from the persona that occupied the office—and one of its most disappointing. While he could never have been the radical break with the recent past that he appeared to promise, there was some minor hope—I even held it weakly myself—that his judicious temperament and his rarely used but still welcome capacity to occasionally prick the swollen edifice of his office, to laugh at it, might mean that he was something very slightly different than we’d seen before. Well, his defenders say when you start bitching about the money from the bank, everyone else has done it. To which the obvious reply is: yes, exactly.

— Jacob Bacharach

Sometimes it takes someone outside the plane of acceptable politics to show just how unacceptable what happens in that plane is. Which is one reason to read Jacob Bacharach (and Michael Robbins).  

Friday’s Child

by W.H. Auden

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945)
 
He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort
 
On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.
 
Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.
 
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
 
It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?
 
The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.
 
Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.
 
Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,
 
And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
 
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.
 
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free
 
To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

 

A Benedict Aesthetic?

I’m ambivalent about Rod Dreher, his ‘Benedict Option,’ and this New Yorker profile, but I can enthusiastically endorse these two bits from the piece:

“Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life,” a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. “It’s still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that.”

Amen. I think that just about covers what’s missing from many BenOp discussions–and also what a great number of millenials (this one included!) are tempted to. And then there’s this sly repurposing of that MacIntyre quote that won’t go away:

Afterward, Dreher and the other panelists retreated to the club’s library. Bartenders served the Benedict Option (“another—doubtless very different—cocktail,” made with whiskey, amaro, St-Germain, lemon juice, and simple syrup).  

 

How To See The Resurrection

 

What makes the Resurrection faith real, is the people on whose faces there is some reflection of the reality of the present risen Jesus, his lordship and his glory expressed in the courage and fidelity of his friends and servants. Folk like me can go on nattering about the Resurrection, but it’s the confessors and martyrs and saints who show it in its reality.

— Rowan Williams

Hillbilly Elegy

 Accolades for books whose authors breathe the same air as their readers should be treated with more circumspection than ones whose authors are deceased. When that air is thick with the fog of politics, well, then outright skepticism is called for. As anyone who lived through last year can attest, there was plenty of fog. The admiration for Hillbilly Elegy, then, is understandable. It is not, in my view, merited. 

J.D. Vance grew up in rural Appalachia. His memoir details his childhood there, the instability of his teenage years, and his exit—as a Marine. Throughout, Vance tells the story of his community. The writing is fine and the stories are interesting enough, but neither are particularly revelatory. It’s when Vance splices in sociology that he gets into trouble. The seams—between Vance’s story and Appalachia’s—obtrude. The narrative begins to feel patchwork. In a year in which American attention was forced to turn, briefly, to the hinterlands of the nation, it is easy to see why Vance’s story was seized upon. He made it out of an environment of social instability, into Yale Law School, and then through the doors of a prestigious consulting firm. His story bridges worlds drifting apart. But it does not possess the secret reason for our recent political catastrophe and I very much doubt whether it will be remembered once that crisis has passed.