Chesterton

After 1,300 pages, I've finished the Max Saunders biography of Ford Madox Ford

That was a long book.  There are big books that feel big, and books that don't.  This felt big, and the problem was that Saunders not only went into excruciating detail about his subject's movements, incidental friendships and even meals, he also broke up his narrative with extensive discussions of Ford's literary works.

I tallied 83 pages on on the Parade's End series, which is fine in terms of criticism, but if you want to find out more about the author, it's a heck of a digression.

I'm also going to call Saunders out for being a truly impressive fanboy.  I like Ford's work, admire his turn of phrase, but I'm sorry, Last Post was a clunker of a book, and there's a reason why Graham Greene did not want it included in his reprint.  As he points out, the book was not part of the original scheme of the work and was added on later to explore what happened to Tietjens and Miss Wannop.

Having read the biography, it's pretty clear that Ford is creating an idealized version of his postwar life, one starkly at odds with what eventually happened.  Ford should have updated it ten years later, including Wannop's bastard child and the fact that Tietjens has abandoned her for another young woman and regularly keeps his eye open for new talent.

Saunders desperately tries to excuse Ford, emphasizing his art over his morally abhorrent behavior (well, this was written in the 1990s), but there is no inherent contradiction between moral uprightness and literary worth.  G.K. Chesterton was a brilliant writer as was J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh had a wild youth, and was by no means the model father, but he didn't abandon his wife and children and let himself constantly be led astray.  There was quite literally no woman he had a relationship with on whom he did not seriously consider cheating.  The only reason he remained true to his final mistress, Janice Biala, was that he was too ill to consummate any more adulteries.

To his credit, he never truly abandoned his Catholic faith and tried to raise his children in the Church. 

Though the work is quite long enough, I would have liked to see less literary analysis and more about his extended family, including his illegitimate daughter and his brother Oliver, who pops into and out of the narrative without much explanation.  An epilogue on his descendants would also have interested me.

Instead, Saunders - like his subject - regarded Ford's death as the end of the line, and wrote no more.

 


The allure of paganism

Over the past week, commenter CN has deftly woven together two of the themes of this site - the corruption of Christianity and the complex personality of Ford Madox Ford.

The discussion of Jewish women indulging in neo-paganism reminded me of a consideration of paganism from a few years ago.

As I said then, paganism offers much that appeals to our contemporary culture.  It's bold, transgressive, and  it eliminates bothersome boundaries. 

The primary weakness is that once one casts aside restraint, why bother with religious ritual at all?  I think for the Boomer generation, there was something of a thrill in going to church in a bathrobe and slippers and the Gen X crowd went even farther by getting all tatt'd up and "blessing" same-sex relationships.

But why bother with all that?  Why not sleep in on Sunday?  The truth is that classical paganism actually had lots of rules and required frequent acts of devotion.  All those marble temples were used; they weren't just empty monuments to be admired.

This is why I think it is no accident that much of paganism is concentrated within the global church rather than rising outside of it.  This would of course fit in with the Enemy's designs of outright blocking the path to salvation by corrupting Christ's message and misleading His servants.

But even that thrill seems to be fading.  In places where Woke Christianity reigns triumphant, church attendance is almost undetectable.  It's interesting that the Anglican population of Wales (which needs six bishops (most of them female, of course), could fit into a mid-sized sporting area. 

Whether "observant" or not, a frequent recourse is to the display of virtue.  The old amulets and shrines have now given way to a bumper sticker or yard sign, hence closing the ring between neo-paganism and Yard Sign Calvinism.

For students of history, there is a dreary familiarity to all of this.  Just as the same worn-out heresies keep cropping up in new wrappings by people who think they've just invented the wheel, so the same old sins get repackaged as virtues.  Waugh, Chesterton and of course Tolkien all saw it, and it's still going on today.

Something to keep in mind as the latest "new neo-pagan" thing emerges.


When profit is no longer the motive

I'm old enough to remember when "corporate greed" was regularly denounced as the greatest of all evils.  The profit motive was synonymous with environmental destruction, unsafe working conditions and every manner of harmful behavior.

This was exemplified during the 1980's movie Wall Street, when arch-villain Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) famously pronounced "Greed is good."

The context of the film was that Gekko was a ruthless corporate raider and he was using labor concessions on a recently-acquired airline to boost its stock only to break it up and sell off its assets.  The maintainers, support staff and pilots would all lose their jobs to that a rich man could make himself even richer.

With the benefit of hindsight, the problem was not greed per se (which will always be with us) but an incentive structure that laid a premium on short-term gains over long-term profitability. 

Now, however, we have a new problem, which is that greed is competing against social virtue-signalling, creating an even more toxic situation.  This is a species of Yard Sign Calvinism, where the primary goal is to show the virtue of the people in charge; whether this benefits society as a whole is besides the point.

For example, No Mow May was supposed to boost pollinators, but the lawns that went wild have since been cut and - thanks to a mild drought - are now dead.  A far better option was to simply plant flowering plants and let them remain year-round.

What if the same skewed values prevailed in commerce?  Well, one would see profitable enterprises - and the jobs that sustained them - squandered merely for a passing boost in social status.  Gekko's corporate raider capitalism shifted wealth from one group to another; Yard Sign Calvinism destroys it for "likes" on social media.

I think the former is therefore preferable to the latter because the final determination of profit can be shaped by legislation (such as the tax code) but also by people voting with their dollars.  A robust customer boycott can not only cause the company directly affected to change course, but influence others as well.

But if the company's leadership sees itself as being part of a great moral cause, the boycott might actually harden their determination to maintain their fixation.  I think this is the case in entertainment, where CEOs are incapable of course corrections on failing franchises because they covet social approval more than dividends.  In their case, greed would be a virtue.

G.K. Chesterton long noted the fanatical devotion of many alleged "free thinkers" to various causes, and their willingness to use any amount of someone else's money to feel good about themselves.  He wrote satire, but now it's all to real.

I miss the robber-barons.

 

 


"No Mow May" leads to "Lawn Death June"

I figured the end of No Mow May would be unpleasant for the participants, but I did not foresee that we would have drought conditions at its conclusion.

It has not rained her for two weeks and the plants are starting to show stress.  For those who regularly maintain their lawns, the solution is simple: stop mowing.  I usually mow once a week, but without rain, I held off because cutting the grass causes it to lose moisture, and driving over it when it is dry and brittle cause further damage.  When it gets enough rain, the grass will rocket up, and then there will be a job to do.

However, for the No Mow May crowd, waiting is no longer an option.  The city has an ordnance about grass length, and while the good burghers will willing to look the other way for a fashionable cause, such dispensations could not be prolonged indefinitely.

Thus, as anyone with passing knowledge of lawn maintenance could have predicted, the result is that many formerly well-manicured yards are now trashed.  This is because mowing actually helps sustain the grass - without it, weeds will take over and over time, crowd it out.  In extreme cases, there isn't any actual grass left.   More commonly, there are now bare patches that will have to be replanted and watered.

Those without excessive weeks may be in worse shape, as the trauma inflicted on the grass during drought conditions has killed the lawn outright.

The lesson here is right out of G.K. Chesterton, which is that lawns, like fences, exist for a reason.  The promoters of the event bought into the false narrative that trimmed grass is somehow wasteful, or harmful to the environment.  In truth it is nothing of the sort.

Grass is a time-tested way to provide sustainable green spaces for outdoor recreation while minimizing harmful insect populations.  Even with the drought, tall grass supported high mosquito counts as well as ticks - which I'm sure the dog owners of the area did not appreciate.  Misleading statistics that compare it to farmland ignore the obvious fact that residential neighborhoods can't support production agriculture, but often do support vegetable gardens. 

That it is aesthetically pleasing is also nice, but not the point.  The point is that the alternative is much, much worse, which is why so many cities have ordinances regulating lawns.

I'll be curious to see how many people want to repeat this next year.  Having a dead yard is indeed a cross to bear, but I doubt many of the participants expected it.


Gardening side-quests

This year I decided to make another dedicated attempt at a garden.  Unlike before, I did careful research regarding crops, their location and essentially started the plot from scratch.  My plan was to have the fencing up and the crops in the ground by late April.

That hasn't happened, and there are three reasons for it.

The first is the weather.  Michigan has had insanely inconsistent weather this spring, veering back and forth between the sunny 70s and snow showers.  It has also rained much more than normal, making yard work difficult.  (My plot is well-drained, so standing water isn't an issue.)

The second is my grandchildren, who are spending more time with us.  This isn't generally a problem per se, but it acts as an amplifier to the first reason because when the weather has been good, they want to go to the playground or play in the yard.  Gardening can wait.

But the third reason - and probably the most important - has been the endless "side-quests" necessarily to get my garage and home back in proper order.  Here again, the toll of 21 years of National Guard weekends is apparent. To be fair, about three years ago I burned a week of vacation time to do a major reorganization, fixing problems that had persisted since we moved in.  There is no denying my progress, but it is also true that the hectic schedule since then compromised those gains.

Hence the side-quest reference: just as in a role-playing game, I can't tackle the 'main quest' - putting the garden in - until I can first reorganize the tools.  That requires me to move all the bicycles, which require maintenance and that in turn requires me to find their tools and the air pump, etc.

Thus, while my progress towards the main object remains painfully slow, I am knocking out real improvements.

I also had the foresight to assume I would run late, and so chose the most low-skill plants that would also mature in 60 days or so - making late planting not much of an issue.  Indeed, I'd rather get it done properly.

I will add that I am far better off physically and mentally spending my time on this than rage-stroking over the latest bombshell on the news sites.  When I meet people in person who still follow things, the conversation is a bit difficult.

"Did you hear about such-and-such?!  It's an outrage!"

"Oh, no, that's too bad.  My weeping cherry was beautiful this year, hardly needed trimming at all.  When we moved in, we didn't know how to care for it, and it was choked with old growth.  We had some tree trimmers in doing other work and they said they could work on it, but the shock might be lethal, so I did a little each year and now it looks great!'

"Uh, okay, but about the president-"

"I can't help that.  I can help my tree."

People talk about Chesterton's Fence, and I think that very much applies - having lived here for a decade, I'm seeing what needs to stay and what should go.

And if the garden doesn't work out - at least my house and garage got organized!

 

 


Those who cannot see

My column on Ben Hur at Bleedingfool.com kicked off a modest debate in the comments.  What started as a discussion of the film has now turned into a debate about faith itself.

I'm not interested in litigating my side over here, but the course of the conversation is worth a closer look.

I'm sure most people of faith at some point will encounter an "evangelical atheist."  These people don't believe in God and they don't want anyone else to, either.  Marx had a big hand in creating these creatures, and while they deserve compassion, history has shown they can also be very destructive.

While it is unlikely that we will encounter the next Pol Pot at the bookstore or in an online comment thread, I think it is important that we understand where they are coming from.

In my area, a great many were raised by strictly religious parents and their unbelief is a form of rebellion.  "I refused to be brainwashed into your cult!" is their battle cry.  Others had faith, but for some reason lost it.  Again, the stories tend to have many points in common, but each one is unique. 

Just as converts often tend to be the most fervent believers, apostates are often the Church's worst enemies.  On the psychological level, we can explain this by noting that the same strength of will that can sustain a voluntary life-change can also give it enormous power and zeal.

But if we look spiritually, we a different dynamic.  Converts to the faith are trying to share something wonderful and new to them, something that they had overlooked before. 

The evangelical atheist, by contrast, has nothing new to share, no gift other than envy and despair.

In the last couple of weeks I came across one who explained that there was no God, and that people should just enjoy life knowing that they were going to die and that would be that.  The person insisted that he was perfectly fulfilled, thank you, but that did not explain why he went on a religious forum to spread this message.

I have been seeing this all my adult life.  Again, the reasons vary, but the actions have the same dull similarity.  The most virulent form of this are the ones who want to outlaw all religious practice in the US military.  And that is what gives the game away.

The old secular materialist explanation was that misery loves company, and having had their faith shattered or never being able to find it, these folks seethe with envy and anger when they see smiling religious people find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It's especially obvious when they go out of their way to hinder them - like going to an online religious discussion to spread their message.

But if we use the Spiritual Warfare lens, what we see is something different.  These people have declared themselves against God and therefore any hint of His presence is a threat to them.  That is why they want churches closed, and seek to undermine the faith of others.  They are allied with demons, but too blind to see it.

Such creatures regularly appear in the writings of Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, which shows how far back this particular strain of Spiritual Warfare goes.  Indeed, one of the Enemy's most successful tactics has been creating an artificial tension between faith and science.  Yet there is none.  Faith without reason is merely foolish while science without faith is diabolical.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the Ben Hur exchange with the commenter's refusal to even accept the possibility of miracles.  Given that the oldest writings we have confirm their existence - indeed there is an evidentiary chain leading to the present day - this is perhaps the most irrational aspect of atheism.

There are no magic words to break through to such people, but my hope is that by giving counter-examples to their misery, people who of their own choice embraced faith and found contentment and joy, they may look about themselves with new eyes.

 

 


Easter in the garden

On Good Friday I received an email informing that my military retirement application had finally been accepted.

I submitted it in October.

Since then it was rejected twice, but third time's the charm, right?  In any event, while I've been savoring my newfound freedom from grooming regulations (and I have the beard and long hair to prove it!), I've not yet been able to fully utilize all the extra time.  This was because there's simply not that much to do during the winter months - particularly when they were so erratic in terms of weather.  I have a pair of cross-country skis, but the snow would dump and then melt, or we'd get ice rather than snow. 

But now spring has sprung, and my yard beckons.  Yesterday I spent several hours toiling away in my latest attempt at a vegetable garden.  I got a lot accomplished, but there is still much to do before I can begin planting.  I have had gardens before with varying success at this house, but this will be my most serious effort to day.  For example, I did actual research on what to grow and developed a plan for the garden, its fencing and other countermeasures to protect my plants. 

This is in stark contrast with my usual approach of reading the seed packet and hoping for the best.

So this year will be similar to other years, but also different.  Some years ago I heard a homily the centered on that idea.  As we get older, we've experienced the holidays (indeed the entire liturgical calendar) many times over.  We've done Christmas.  We've done Easter.  They are arguably the same event, year after year.

But we are not the same, and that's part of the mystery that surrounds them.  Easter as a child is different than Easter as a teenager, or an adult, or a parent, or a grandparent.  Just as every growing year is different, so is each year of our life.  The events of last Easter shape my perception of this Easter, adding a richness and depth to it.  I'm sure next Easter will likewise have a much different about it.

That's why it is so important that we take time to savor these moments and reflect on them.  One of my recurring themes on this site (and in my commentary elsewhere) is that we can only write about what we know.  If we shut ourselves off from God, from life, we stagnate and experience a form of early death.  We become incapable of telling stories because all we know are stories filtered to us through others.  All that remains are tropes and checking off political boxes.  It's basically painting by number.

It is no accident that writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton emphasize the dull uniformity of evil.  Evelyn Waugh also disparaged unthinking uniformity as a sign of moral sickness.

Some might find it fully that a bunch of Catholics would highlight individuality given the confines of the Church's worship practices, but they understood that withing those bounds, there is an intense amount of variety.  Again, the Eucharist is offered at every Mass, but we are not the same.  It's not the outward form, but the inner transformation that matters.

Happy Easter!


The Problem of Evil revisited

Not quite two years ago I addressed what some people call the Problem of Evil and used the example of how children will defy even the most loving and caring parents.

For those not up to speed on Christian apologetics, the Problem of Evil is also phrased as "why does God allow bad things to happen?"

I stand by my earlier answer, but in the time since I gave it, I've come to see things differently.  To me the question is rather "How do good things happen at all?"

I mean, the notion that life should be free of harm, danger or sorrow is completely divorced from reality.  Looking at the world around us and informed by history, the most logical expectation of life is that it should be (to quote Hobbes) "nasty, brutish and short."

And it often is.  Interestingly, in such societies expectations of comfort and leisure are few and fleeting.  I think our current notions of "evil" are largely informed by the unprecedented peace and prosperity Westerners have lived in for the past few generations.

Where I live, there is an assumption in the wider community that these things are the default setting for humanity, that they will happen organically, naturally, like flowers blooming in the spring.  When something disturbs their tranquility, they are indignant and demand that changes be made to ensure it never happens again.  I have a mental image of Karen demanding to speak with God's manager.

One of the keys to happiness (and avoiding disappointment) is aligning expectations with realistic outcomes.  In truth, there is no bottom, no guaranteed level of comfort for any of us.  The only guarantee in life is that it ends in death.  People who have endured great hardship over a space of years get this. 

Every Vietnam POW I've talked to (and I've talked to quite a few as guest speakers during my military career) has an incredible grateful and optimistic demeanor.  They cherish every sunrise and sunset.  No sensation is wasted, from a warm shower to clean sheets on their feet.  After each presentation I have remarked that while I envy their joy, I'm not sure I want to spend years at the Hanoi Hilton to get it.

That's because it's hard to not to take nice things for granted when it is all you have known.  While I am thankful for nice things, I have come to also be thankful for hardships that make me appreciate them more. 

All of which is to say that one of the proofs of God is the presence of goodness and joy in the world.  Logically, it serves no purpose.  Fear and oppression are far more efficient and frankly pleasing to most people.  Absent some sort of moral scruple, most people won't think twice about stealing or hurting someone.  It is only through religion (specifically, Christianity) that we develop a sense that this is wrong.

Much of Western society still has a residual sense of Christian morality, but that is now fading, and we're seeing the results.  Appeals to decency are now pointless, and it has even gone so far that some people respond to expressions of sympathy and offers of prayer with rage and profanity.

These are people who are perilously close to the "I would lie, cheat, steal or kill if only I could get away with it" threshold, but that can't see it.

Indeed, here I must once again mention the Yard Sign Calvinists, who often play a leading role in both disparaging Christianity and wishing harm on those they deem outside of the Elect.

Evil can manifest in many ways, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work illustrates how the more pure of motives can lead one down a dark path.  G.K. Chesterton likewise gives countless illustrations of how the well-meaning and self-righteous become the devil's tools.  Much of Evelyn Waugh's satire focuses on this as well (particularly in Black Mischief).

Thus, I'm not saying anything particularly new or unique, and I freely admit that the Lord of Spirits podcast has contributed to my understanding of evil.

When bad things happen, it is important that we retain this perspective.  God knows our suffering, and we should always strive to learn from it.  It is possible to make something good out of a terrible event - as the Vietnam POWs I mentioned above have done.

Indeed, I think that is something most pleasing to God and perhaps why people who have achieved it seem so content.

 


The Christmas Spirit

In may last post I (jokingly?) referred to malign spirits of technology glitches, but over the last few years I've come to accept that there's more spiritual activity in this world than we acknowledge.

While I have to give the obligatory nod to the Lord of Spirits podcast, this view predated my wife's discovery of them, and it also made me very receptive of their message.

Timing is important in these sorts of things.  What might have seemed stupid then may make perfect sense now.  Given my upbringing, which was very skeptical of miracles and hostile to organized religion, I could only accept these truths gradually.

As the podcast points out, there are singular spirits, but also collective ones - the "spirit of the age" as it were (literally Zeitgeist in German).  There are also crowd spirits, and we see this in things like football games or various rallies.  How many times has "the mood turned sour" and a reasonably calm crowd suddenly become overcome by madness - a change that even the participants found hard to explain?

I'm sure some of you are immediately thinking of psychological conclusions (certainly I am), but what if psychology itself is an attempt to find a material expression for a spiritual event?  The grand experiment in secular psychology is about a century old and the results are pretty awful.  We pump people full of drugs, tell them to play with crayons and they still kill themselves.

Indeed, now our "medical professionals" are urging assisted suicide as a solution to chronic depression!

To me, it is increasingly obvious that the problem is a separation from God and any sense of meaning in life.  If you're just a bony juice bag waiting to get the whole thing over with, fast-forwarding to the ending makes sense.  Obviously, folks like G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis pointed all this out decades ago.  If you aren't reading them, you should be.

In addition to the spirits of crowds, I think there are also spirits of events, and that's where Christmas comes in.  One of the Enemy's greatest victories was turning the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord into a celebration of materialism.  I hate "holiday displays" that center on wrapped gifts - as if that's the reason for the season. 

Growing up as I did, the culmination of Christmas was Christmas Day, but traditionally that is the beginning, not the end.  As the song says, there's 12 days of Christmas, and the decorations should stay up and the music should still play because the event isn't just about tearing away wrapping paper on the morning of the 25th.

I am pleased to say that (at least in the circles I move in), this view is becoming more common. 

Partly because our kids are grown, the gift-giving element has become merely symbolic in our household.  I'm hoping to do what I can to ensure our grandkids also look at the season as a time for some presents, but that it should in now way be a lavish attempt to either show off prosperity, or a belated attempt to buy affection.  I know kids who grew up with that, and it hasn't worked out well for them.

Despite what was in many ways an unhappy childhood, I've always had a warm spot for Christmas because I associate it with joy and happiness.  Christmas Day to me has been marked with family gatherings, old friends dropping in and a sense of overall well-being.  I hope your Christmas is possess by the same benevolent spirit that has touched mine.

 


The politics of spiritual warfare

If this election season seems unusually intense, it's because for the first time in my lifetime, abortion is on the ballot in a great many states.

The chance to implement a full range of options, from absolute permissiveness to total abolition has created unprecedented volatility.

Of course, the political parties have always had different positions on abortion.  The Democrats claimed they wanted it to be "safe, legal, and rare" while Republicans were generally Right to Life.

As it turns out, both were lying.  The Democrats were always maximalists, but had to hide that to get election and a great many Republicans claimed Right to Life positions to secure their flank during primary elections.

Thus we have the spectacle of GOP politicians who formerly penned columns demanding the immediate overturn of Roe v. Wade now lamenting its demise and urging caution.  As in so many other examples of intellectual betrayal, the giveaway is that these column never feature a long, winding and lucid account of how the author's views came to change in the manner of David Horowitz or the original Neocons.

The implied reason is that the author can't do it - it's hard to explain changing your mind from a position you never sincerely held.

In such times, then, how is one to vote?

Both parties now regard it the height of cleverness to reverse their positions once elected (usually in unison) and then to lock ranks against the public.   The logic is that if both parties go all-in, the public will have no alternative.

This works for a while, and then an insurgent gets in, promises to be different and...often does the same.

So is voting pointless?

No.  I think the most important use of the vote is where proposals and lesser offices are concerned, positions like school board and city council.  These are easier to influence and - in the event of a betrayal - they make recall elections more feasible and therefore effective as a deterrent.

But at the macro scale, there is some utility in simply spending the next few years firing every incumbent in sight.  In this, one must be patient, treating the body politic like a field overgrown with weeds and thorns.  One cannot transform it into productive agriculture all at once.  It will take several seasons to pull all the stumps and rocks, eradicate the weeds and shape it into productive land that produced good crops.

Put simply, politics is yet another theater in spiritual warfare.  It is not the most important.  Each of us is the crucial battleground for our own soul.  From there, the focus broadens to the family, the parish, the community, the region and so on.  To focus exclusively on politics is therefore to ignore the decisive point.

But to ignore it is to allow the Enemy the ability to constantly intervene everywhere down the line.  It is interesting the G.K. Chesterton is once again in the news, as his wisdom very much applies. 

Having more time to read, I think I shall dive deeper into his works.