Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When the English Fall

When the English Fall by David Williams. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2017.

Whilst a university student, I sojourned amongst the Anabaptists (mostly Mennonites, but definitely not universally Mennonite) of Virginia's northern Shenandoah Valley. I think it was my junior year that my best friend and I attended a Church whose only apparent Mennonite distinctive was that a few of the older women wore the token doily on their heads; I don't think there were even any black bumpers in the parking lot. No buggies, either, although getting stuck behind a horse and buggy on Rockingham County's winding roads was just the price of leaving Harrisonburg. I never did become an Anabaptist, but I got a sense of what they're all about.

As a presbyterian, there are few commonalities between my tradition and Anabaptism, at least with regard to surface features. Beneath that, however, both our traditions agree that discipleship is a serious matter which one ought to expect to have serious consequences for the way one lives. That belief is at the heart of When the English Fall and its fictional narrator, Jacob, a member of an Amish district in Pennsylvania. The Amish have pretty well worked out their path of discipleship, but their patterns of life are challenged and tested when civilization collapses.

In Williams's version, the dystopian tipping point comes when some freak atmospheric event acts as a massive electromagnetic pulse, effectively putting an end to all electricity and machinery. The plain folk, of course, are perfectly capable of getting by without those things which make modern civilization possible. For Jacob and his community, physical survival is never in question. Instead, their central concern is whether their culture and path of discipleship can survive in a world in which, like it or not, they are irretrievably entangled.

It's refreshing to read a novel in which prayer is a central feature. It's challenging to ask how committed one is, in practice, to following Jesus.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Between the Times

Between the Times: the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990 by D.G. Hart. Willow Grove: The Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2011, xii + 340 pages, cloth.

D.G. Hart concludes his history of the OPC's middle years (i.e. the time between the operatic intensity of our denomination's founding and the solipsistically fascinating contemporary period) this way:
The history and identity of the OPC are bound up with each other; they cannot be separated. The OPC's history looks different from that of other Presbyterian churches because of its understanding of Reformed Christianity. At the same time, Orthodox Presbyterianism arose from specific struggles and traditions within Presbyterianism in the United States. When the OPC has been most aware of its history she has been most keen to preserve her Reformed heritage, and when she has been most zealous for what Machen called the grandeur of the Reformed faith she has been most attentive to her history. If the OPC is going to maintain her strengths as a Reformed communion, or if her officers and members decide to refashion or modify her identity, they will need first to consider the church's past. Without that history Orthodox Presbyterianism makes no sense.
That's an admirable defense of his book, and the very reason for which I read it. Indeed, as an immigrant into the OPC by virtue of my ordination to the ministry of Word and sacrament, I've long believed that familiarity with our communion's peculiar history is the only thing which might enable one to begin comprehending what matters to us and why.

In practice, that may mean that Between the Times is only for a select audience consisting of OPC historiphiles and anthropologists such as myself. The production of the Trinity Hymnal and Sunday School curricula does not, sadly, make for a riveting read. On the other hand, Hart demonstrates the close connection between home and foreign missions in the OPC's early decades, along with the reality that many pastors were, in practice, as much Church planters as anything else. This helps expand the portrait of parish life which one might otherwise assume to be fairly constricted.

The relationship between the denomination and Westminster Theological Seminary evolved and was strained to the breaking point during this period. I would have preferred an even more in-depth exploration of the Shepherd controversy. About fifteen years ago, its sequel erupted over the doctrine of justification. Sadly (in my opinion), the General Assembly report which was to settle the matter dealt only with doctrinal matters and ignored the history and the personalities involved. The intensity of the debate is explicable only when sociological and historical, over doctrinal, matters are considered. We really need George Marsden to write a history of the entire affair comparable to his "Perspective on the Division of 1937" (found in Pressing Toward the Mark).

Between the Times may not be a popular history, but is indispensable reading for anyone who would serve in ordained office in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, particularly at the presbytery or General Assembly levels.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Last Policeman

Ben H. Winters can write a compelling novel. The Last Policeman (title of both a trilogy and the first volume thereof) begins in March 2012 and concludes, along with the world, on October 3, 2012 when a giant asteroid collides with the Earth. In each volume, Detective Hank Palace works to unravel a particular mystery, but the real puzzle at the heart of the trilogy is what Albert Camus proposed as the only truly serious philosophical problem: suicide. That is, given the sobering reality that every person is born to die, what gives any person's life a meaning sufficient to make delaying that death worthwhile? 

Winters is clearly aware he is following in the footsteps of Camus's existentialist novels and philosophy, having described The Last Policeman as "existential detective novel." By condemning the entire world to destruction, Winters forces each of his characters to determine the reason that she or he will keep going. Those reasons are highly individualistic and, unsurprisingly, infrastructure rapidly unravels as hyperinflation gives way to something like martial law which in turn collapses into simple anarchy, as even members of police forces and the military cannot be compelled to uphold a system which very soon will no longer exist.

The Christian response to the existential question, of course, is found in Ecclesiastes 12:13: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." However, I recognize that those outside the Church don't recognize this wisdom, and am personally interested in how the existential question is worked through in the narrative arts. Last Night and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World are riveting cinematic examples of the genre, at least to me. I appreciate the clarity which the End of Days brings to each character's every choice.

The existential dilemma forms the background. Hank Palace and others wrestle openly with it, but what makes this trilogy a page-turner is Winters' ability to construct an opaque but plausible mystery and engaging characters. I read it as fast as I could; I suggest you do the same.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Regarding constitutional crises

In "Ireland's Constitutional Crisis" on the First Things website, John Waters discusses the harm visited upon his nation because many of his fellow citizens have forgotten that their constitution does not grant rights upon them. Rather, it enumerates the rights they have because said rights preexist their constitution, having been granted to all persons by the Triune God.

His discussion is helpful not only for the Irish, but for Americans as well. Our own Declaration of Independence asserts that our rights are unalienable because all persons have been endowed with them by our Creator. As this truth becomes less and less self-evident to our fellow citizens, the more likely it becomes that our civil governments will attempt to alienate our rights from us.

Ireland may not be the only nation suffering a constitutional crisis.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Friday, January 19, 2018

The questions we face

In the words of Lancellotti, Del Noce understood that “we cannot just rely on a mechanical repetition of [religious] formulas, because what we received from our forebears is conditioned by the questions they faced, and we ourselves can only think in terms of the questions we are facing.”  
In his critical review of Augusto Del Noce's The Age of Secularization (translated by Carlo Lancelloti), Francis X. Maier focuses on Del Noce's thought with regard to technological change. The above quote of course has theological implications, and presbyterian implications especially.

On the one hand, I'm reminded of John Frame's frequent admonition that theology must be done by every generation because every generation must apply the Bible to its own time. As I've argued elsewhere, this even extends to a Church's confessional standards; I continue to believe the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's confession needs to speak much more robustly and clearly on the Biblical doctrine of anthropology (especially with regard to sexuality and marriage). In the same vein, I'm reminded of the error of puritanolatry, which often renders its practitioners incapable of dialogue with  citizens of this present age.

On the other hand, the more subtle, and accordingly more profound danger, warned against in the above quote is that of thinking that answers to our forebears' questions are answers to our own. One way in which this error manifests in conservative reformed and presbyterian Churches is the belief that the best defense against theological liberalism is to maintain, unchanged, centuries-old confessional standards. (Looking at you, Westminster and Three Forms of Unity.) On this view, there are no new questions, only ones which have been answered by our forebears. In practice, of course, our generation faces its own questions, and the temptation is to repress or ignore them because our traditions are silent. Here again, the Church runs the risk of irrelevance by denying the valid concerns of our own day (for example, race relations and gender power dynamics). 

We are obligated by the 5th Commandment to receive the traditions of our forebears with respect and honor. The same commandment also obligates us to build on those traditions for the sake of our generation and those who follow. We must identify the questions we face, and seek answers on the basis of the only true source of all religious formulae, which of course is the Bible itself.

Monday, January 8, 2018


In "Superheroic Testimonies," Armond White argues that the recent Zack Snyder-helmed Superman films represent an exploration of spiritual (and especially Roman Catholic) themes and an attempt to unify the cinematic masses around genuine emotion. Marshaling the evidence of both imagery and plot device, he views these DC-Universe films as a serious examination and recreation of mythological tropes for our era.

Nice try, but no.

Glen Weldon gets everything wrong with the most recent Superman movies right when he writes,
Zack Snyder, the man charged with ushering the latest wave of DC heroes onto the movie screen, and thus into the wider cultural consciousness, does not believe in heroes. He's a Randian Objectivist tasked with bringing to cinematic life characters who are, at their essence, embodiments of a deep, fervent, and all-consuming altruism. That is why the moral universe he creates around them is one in which the very notion of heroism, of selflessness, is unrealistic, even laughable, and ultimately futile. 
Weldon's The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture is a masterful cultural biography of Batman by a man who understands why we read comic books and why superheroes have arisen to fulfill the mythological void left by Christendom's victory over the old gods. A few pages on, he repeats a thesis he has already set forth with some frequency:
[This fan] culture holds up moral ambiguity and ambivalence as inherently more interesting, more relevant and–crucially, as far as they are concerned–more sophisticated. This is nonsense, as the role of superheroes is to be ideals, exemplars, absolutes–the stories we tell ourselves as we strive to follow their lead.
Glen Weldon understands superheroes and why we love them. And thanks to his dutiful research and scintillating writing, I'm caught up on everything Batman's been doing for the last several decades.

I'm going to go re-read The Dark Knight Returns now. Again.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Last Christmas

So it's one of those years.

I really, really wanted a solid Christmas album for this year's recommendation, so much so that I even  attempted to listen to Sia's latest offering. (I made it halfway through the first song on the album. My commitment knows no bounds, people.) Finding no reason for joy, I eagerly awaited Bullseye's holiday special, but they just rebroadcast last year's show. Jane Lynch's A Swingin' Little Christmas is still marvelous, but the presbyterian blogger union won't let me repeat a recommendation. (Nobody wants to get ratted out to the shop steward, man.)

So no Christmas album recommendation this year, but thankfully I can give you a new Christmas song. Noisetrade's holiday mixtape for 2017 includes the Dollyrots' cover of Wham's Last Christmas. I graduated high school in the '80s, but only now have learned to love this song.

Sorry, the late George Michael.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Underground Airlines

When Mrs. Curmudgeon's maternal grandfather died, I inherited a sizable chunk of his theological library, at which time I ceased from the incessant accumulation of books which is an endemic hazard to those in my line of work. Given that I now owned more than enough volumes I would never read, it seemed doubly ridiculous to buy more that I will never read. I still acquire books for my professional library, of course, but they have to meet the (strict-only-to-people-who-already-have-a-severe-bibliomania-problem) standard of being something I actually have plans to read. At least most of the time.

But then Mrs. Curmudgeon gifted me my first Kindle e-reader a few years ago, and I discovered Amazon's Kindle Daily Deals, where books often go for only a couple dollars. As these volumes have the additional benefit of taking up literally no shelf space whatsoever, my borderline bibliokleptomania became resurgent, and now I've lost count of the digital books I own. (Nonetheless, I am sure that I will eventually read every last electronic page of that unabridged copy of Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples.) One recent acquisition I actually did read is Ben H. Winter's Underground Airlines.

In Winters's alternative timeline, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated en route to his inauguration, the Crittenden Compromise was amended to the Constitution, and these United States remain a house divided into the twenty-first century. The main character is an escaped slave who has been turned by the U.S. Marshals Service into a fugitive slave catcher himself. Winters is an able hand at both character and plot: he had me so hooked that as soon as I finished Underground Airlines, I took up his The Last Policeman (that one I checked out from the library), which won an Edgar Award.

The plot, and the true significance of the macguffin which drives it, get at the dehumanization at the heart of American chattel slavery and interestingly explores the ways in which we still are working through its consequences in our own (real?) timeline. More important to me, however, the book drips with anger from every page. Outrage is the only proper and human response to America's peculiar institution and its racist legacy today.

Perhaps institutional racism continues not because we fail to love strongly enough, but because we aren't angry enough. Underground Airlines will help stoke your fury.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Because I can't look away

Pajamagrams are the cure to anxiety over "The Democratic Republic" of Korea's nuclear ballistic missile program. Now I look forward to the dystopian nightmare.