"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

What I’m Reading: H. P. Lovecraft

It’s October.  Autumn is here.  Colored leaves are falling.  Pumpkins are appearing.  There’s a chill in the air.  What better time to curl up with a book by one of the great masters of horror: H. P. Lovecraft?

This is actually the first time I’ve read anything by Lovecraft.  When I was in college, his books were quite popular, especially with the geeky set.  I wasn’t a big fan of horror, however.  In fact, I’m still not.  But Lovecraft and his creations have gotten so deeply embedded in the pop culture landscape that I decided to give him a try.  I picked up a couple volumes from a used bookstore and decided to start with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Well, I was not impressed.  Lovecraft certainly has a large vocabulary and a penchant for images.  He has some skill for devising gothic-sounding names.  Nonetheless, his writing is packed with stuff like this:

In light slumber he descended the seventy steps to the cavern of flame and talked of this design to the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah.  And the priests shook there pshent-bearing heads and vowed it would be the death of his soul.  They pointed out that the Great Ones had shown already their wish, and that it is not agreeable to them to be harassed by insistent pleas.  They reminded him, too, that not only had no man ever been to Kadath, but no man had ever suspected in what part of space it may lie; whether it be in the dreamlands around our own world, or in those surrounding some unguessed companion of Fomalhaut or Aldebaran.  If in our dreamland, it might conceivably be reached, but only three human souls since time began had ever crossed and recrossed the black impious gulfs to other dreamlands, and of that three, two had come back quite mad.  There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity–the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless , tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

 Either you can take such stuff seriously or you can’t.  I can’t, so no more Lovecraft for me.

What I’m Reading: Greener Than You Think

The 1950’s is famous for goofy monster movies in which lizards, spiders, and other critters grow to enormous dimensions after being exposed to radiation and rampage across the landscape, flattening civilization in the process.  These classics of scientific paranoia were presaged by a little-known science fiction novel published in 1947: Greener Than You Think, by Ward Moore.

The story begins when a lowlife salesman by the name of Albert Weener meets an ambitious scientist by the name of Josephine Francis and a makeshift workshop in suburban L.A.  Francis has developed a new compound that will allow plants to derive nutrition from any substance.  Weener decides to demonstrate by spraying it on an ugly patch of lawn in an ugly neighborhood.  Within days, the grass on the lawn has grown taller than the surrounding trees and no one is able to cut it.  Soon it is destroying buildings and the military is called into to combat the weed.  Those familiar with genre conventions can probably guess the rest.

What makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the character development and the sharp, satirical tone.  Ward Moore is a keen observer of human nature and he gives us a plethora of unique characters to laugh at.  Besides Albert and Jospehine, we get a montage of newspaper writers and editors, military men and their offspring, religious leaders, explorers, servants, and business types.  The story is all about the every-growing, devilish grass, but all of the characters respond in different ways.  Some seek to make a profit of it, others turn to it for artistic inspiration, and others take a purely scientific approach.  Nobody in the story truly understands the magnitude of the situation or really responds appropriately–an astute warning at a time when global warming and national debt loom on the horizon.

The main idea of the book, though, is simply to wring humor from the outlandish characters.  Albert Weener manages to land a job as a newspaper columnist, and his adventures in writing and publishing take up a good chunk of the story.  He works under an abusive editor named W. R. le ffacase–no typo there–and their personalities rebound off each other to hilarious effect.  Moore includes some pointed parodies of writing styles from his time period.  Today, it seems amazing that newspaper articles ever included so much flourish.  All-in-all, Greener Than You Think is an excellent satiric science fiction novel and well worth a bit of time and money to procure.

(Here is another review of the book for those who are interested.)

What I’m Reading: The Population Bomb

There are for more books than there are movies, TV shows, or computer games.   In one way this is a good thing, since it gives us readers more choices.  On the other hand, since the number of books is in the millions, making the choices can be difficult.  In a lifetime each of us can read at best a few thousand books.  That means millions will be left out.  How do we pick?

I’ll narrow the question slightly by leaving out recent books and focus only on classics.  Even there we face a choice among millions of books, stretching from a few years old to the dawn of human history.  Which ones should we read?  How do we decide which books are good ones?

An old book is good if it’s been vindicated.   In that respect, my homeboy G. K. Chesterton wrote a lot of good books, because the things he said are now agreed to be true.  Eugenics is actually evil, as he said in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Christianity has lasted, as he predicted in The Everlasting Man.   It’s fun to see the man predicting things which were in his future but our past.  The successful fulfillment of his prophecies also demonstrates his wisdom and clarity of thought.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be entertaining to read a book that was not vindicated, especially one that failed in spectacular fashion.  Which brings us to today’s entry, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.

This book, written in 1968, is most famous for its opening sentences: “The battle to feed humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  This prediction did not come true.  The 1970’s are over—thankfully—and hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death—again thankfully.  Few people today know or care what’s in the rest of the book.  They should.  It’s highly entertaining.

For example, the final chapter, entitled “What can you do?”, presents suggestions for individuals to take to combat overpopulation.  One suggested tactic is, “Proselytizing Friends and Associates”.  That section begins as follows:

At no small risk of being considered a nut, you can do a lot of good by persuading your personal acquaintances that the crisis is here, that something must be done, and that they can help.

Yeah, I think anyone who started lecturing friends about the dangers of overpopulation would be considered a nut.  In that sense, Ehrlich did make one correct prediction.  And then there’s this recommendation for talking to college professors:

The population crisis must be an integral part of his teaching—it is pertinent to every subject.  He must use the prestige of his position in writing letters to whomever he thinks he can influence most.  If he is in English or drama, he may be able to write novels or plays emphasizing near-future worlds in which famines or plagues are changing the very nature of society.  If he is in business school, he can “hit the road” lecturing to businesses on “The Stork as an Enemy of Capitalism.” … Any professor, lecturing anywhere, can insert into his lecture a “commercial” on the problem.  “And so I come to the end of my discussion of the literary significance of Darwin’s hangnail.  In conclusion, I would like to remind you that our Society for the Study of Darwin’s Hangnail can only exist in a world in which there is leisure time for intellectual pursuits.  Unless something is done now to bring the runaway human population under control, the SSDH will not long endure.”

Yes, Ehrlich did write this stuff.  Seriously.  If you don’t believe me, buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself.   He wrote it and millions of people, many of whom were educated and intelligent, took it seriously.

Unfortunately the book contains some ideas that aren’t quite so funny.  First of all, there’s this recommendation: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”  So much for freedom.   Elsewhere this:

 The reproductive function of sex must be shown as just one of its functions, and one that must be carefully regulated in relation to the needs of the individual and society. … With a rational atmosphere mankind should be able to work out the problems of de-emphasizing the reproductive role of sex.  These problems include finding substitutes for the sexual satisfaction which many women derive from childbearing … If we take the proper steps in education, legislation, and research, we should be able in a generation to have a population thoroughly enjoying its sexual activity, relatively free of the horrors created today by divorce, illegal abortion, venereal disease, and the psychological pressures of a sexually repressive and repressed society.

Quite a lot of bad stuff here.  Ehrlich calls for government to muck around in people’s private, sexual decisions.  He calls for us to teach children dishonest things about sex.  He implies that women are unable to understand or control their own sexual desires.  And he predicts that as soon as we rid ourselves of the boogeyman called “sexual repression”, STDs, divorce, and abortion will vanish.  Needless to say, he was wrong.  Society has dropped almost all traditional views of sex and we now let everyone do as they will, but divorce and abortion and STDs were still with us when I last checked.

Lastly Ehrlich offers prescriptions for international policy.  Here’s where he gets truly ugly.  He argues for a system of triage in distributing food aid.  Some third-world countries, in his view, are well off enough that they don’t need aid.  Some are deserving of our aid.  And some are just so overpopulated that there’s no point in giving them aid, so we should just cut off the food and leave them to starve.  Don’t take my word for it; read what Ehrlich says: “Finally there is the last tragic category—those countries that are so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency.  India is probably in this category.  If it is, then under the triage system she should receive no more food.”  So there you have it is so many words.   Ehrlich recommend cutting off food aid to India, which would have resulted in the deaths of many millions.  Fortunately our government did not implement his recommendation.

(One final note: Ehrlich’s example of a good third-world country was Libya, the same Libya that was ruled by the murderous Gaddafi for decades.)

One thing that very few people know about this book is that it was published by the Sierra Club.  Wait, you might ask, the Sierra Club promoted sterilization by force, misogyny, and the unnecessary starvation of millions of people?  It sure did.  I am not an enemy of the Sierra Club.  I consider myself an environmentalist and I strongly support the goal of preserving nature and reducing pollution.  But this book stands as a testament to the need for intelligence and skepticism when someone makes a claim of impending doom.

Chesterton on Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit stands in Dickens’s life chiefly as a signal of how far he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later period; some even think it the worst. Great Expectations is certainly the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent problems; that title must be given to Hard Times. Nor again is it the most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim can be probably made for Edwin Drood. By a queer verbal paradox the most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled and copied from the life of Dickens’s father in the old Marshalsea prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence of form, which belonged to Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected adventures, like a boy’s book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the continent of America. The story of Little Dorrit stops and lingers at the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed; quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external similarities between Little Dorrit and the earliest books, all this loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens. Hard Times is harsh; but then Hard Times is a social pamphlet; perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. Bleak House is a little sombre; but then Bleak House is almost a detective story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story must be sombre. A Tale of Two Cities is a tragedy; but then A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be given — a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that seems to cling to them. But exactly because Little Dorrit is a mere Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple contrast. Dickens’s father had been a prisoner in a debtors prison, and Dickens’s works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied from Dickens’s father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens’s father, in the only sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father; and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true. Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

-G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

What I’m Reading: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens.  Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character.  Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society.  Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this.  Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.

But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels.  It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands.  Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else.  Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune.  They leave the prison in triumph.

For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story.  For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story.  After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe.  As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes.  He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself.  He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class.  To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold.  The irony is self-evident.  When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love.  Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.

Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare.  While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points.  The first main point is wealth.  To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force.  The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good.  The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness.  Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity.  The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness.  Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered.  In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment.  At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ.  This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.

What I’m Reading: I. O. U. S. A.

I. O. U. S. A. has a complicated historyFirst there was a book called Empire of Debt.  That inspired a documentary called I. O. U. S. A.  Then the movie-makers felt the need for a book based on the movie.  Hence we have the book I. O. U. S. A.

In the introduction, the filmmakers acknowledge the difficulty of making a movie about the national debt, a topic synonymous with boredom for most people.  Yet they also try to emphasize that to them, the topic is very important.  Our national debt is huge and getting bigger and has the potential to bring catastrophe to the nation.  Hence they made the documentary and later the book.  The result is a work that at once serves as a good introduction to the problem and an explanation of why the problem probably won’t be solved.

On the first point, the book gives a clear summary of the debt problem for economic novices.  The authors walk us through a series of fundamental points. (1) The United States government, like almost all modern governments, spends more money than it takes in, and thus has a debt. (2) We finance our debt by selling bonds to investors, and promising to pay a certain annual interest rate on those bonds. (3) Thus we are entirely dependent on a group of investors willing to hold our bonds for the interest rates that we’re willing to offer. (4) When national debts get too big, the investors get skittish about their interest payments and start to dump the bonds.  Once this happens, it starts a downward cycle that leads to national insolvency and economic disaster.

All of this ought to be common knowledge.  It’s a tribute to the lousiness of our national education system that many people don’t even understand what government bonds are or how we pay for our national debt.

From there the book proceeds to chapters on our “four deficits”.  Besides the national deficit, there’s the trade deficit, the savings deficit, and the leadership deficit.  These chapters are also laid out with admirable simplicity and clarity, yet the long-term consequences if we don’t deal with them are not neglected.  The book wraps up with a series of interviews with major financial players such as Warren Buffet, Paul Volcker, and alan Greenspan.

So that’s the good part of I. O. U. S. A.  What’s the bad part?  The bad part is that the authors never escape the boredom trap.  They offer thunderous declarations about how important the topic is and how we can’t afford to ignore it, yet their respondes smack very much of politics-as-usual.  For example, in the opening chapter we get this: the Comptroller General “has totaled up the government’s income liabilities and future obligations and concluded that our current standard of living is unsustainable unless some drastic action is taken”.  Yet two pages later we learn of the same individual’s response: “he hosts a series of luncheons and civic meetings around the country, which he’s dubbed the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

So we’ve got luncheons.  We’ve got civic meetings.  And we’re calling it by the hair-raising, pulse-pounding name of “the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour”.  What’s next?  Founding a committeee?  Perhaps even creating a task force?  The national debt certainly is a huge problem.  It’s too big to be solved by the current political system.  If the problem is to be solved, we need some innovative approach to bringing it to public attention.  This book does not offer that.

What I’m reading: The Scar

Yes, it’s time for my monthly confession that I’ve posted nothing about what I’m reading.  I always intend to remember to post about books, and I never do.  Now on with the show.

China Mieville is one of the big names in fantasy to emerge in the last decade.  Needless to say, he remains a complete unknown outside of the fantasy ghetto.  Nobody who reads, writes, or reviews serious literature would have anything to do with him.  But among the hardcore fanboys, few authors command more respect.  He burst on the scene with Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional universe of Bas-Lag, and followed it up with The Scar, set in the sample world but in a very different part of that world.  While Perdido Street Station is set in the vast and teeming but stationary metropolis called New Crobuzon, The Scar is set in the floating city of Armada.

Mieville is the leader of the subgenre known as “urban fantasy”.  Like most genre terms it’s not clearly defined, but it clearly fits what Mieville writes.  In Mieville book’s the main characters are the cities, rather than the people.  In Perdido, New Crobuzon oozes menace and atmosphere.  In The Scar, Armada is carefully established as a physical reality.  One believes in these cities because Mieville plumbs their depths and exposes all the details, because he describes countless neighborhoods in each one and digs into the social, economic, and political fabric.  As far as urban landscapes go, they have no equal in fantasy.

Mieville also stands out for his stunning imagintion as applied to new creatures and races.  While many fantasy authors struggle to come up with a single imaginative concept, Mieville spins out new ones as if he could simply pop them out of a machine.  Perdido gave us walking cactuses, human bodies with big beetle heads, “remade” persons with extra limbs attached as criminal penalties, frog-like Vodyanoi, and more.  The Scar adds in human-sized mosquitoes with insatiable appetites and plenty of other such monstrosities.  Many of these charming add-ons would be worthy of a book of their own, and we can only hope that Mieville will return to them at some future point.

The last good point is that Mieville can actually create a good plot, something which sets him aside from many other urban fantasy practitioners.  In The Scar there are big mysteries to drive the plot forward and adequate explanations for those mysteries.  The pacing is good and there are a decent number of surprises.

Own the downside, The Scar is laced with constant profanity, which is not only unpleasant but often is used as a substitute for characterization.  I wish authors (and screeenwriters) could understand that loading a character’s vocabulary with endless s###’s and f###’s does not make that person gritty, believable, or tough.  Violence is frequent but gore is usually not excessive, though one scene with the aforementioned mosquito people may go a little too far for some people.  Overall, though, Mieville’s imagination and vision win out over those flaws and make The Scar a highly recommended winner.

Chesterton on gas prices

Okay, it’s not really about gas prices, but at least it’s about gas stations.  This is a snippet from the story The Honest Quack in the collection Four Faultless Felons.  The scene is a simple conversation between two men.  Windrush is a crochety old coot who sticks to his old house with one unusual tree.  Dr. Judson is a very progress and forward-looking doctor, who is complaining about that same tree.

“But what’s the good of it?” Judson would cry out of the depths of dark exasperation. “What’s the use of having a thing like that?”

“Why, no use whatever,” replied his host. “I suppose it is quite useless as you understand use. But even if art and poetry have no use, it does not follow that they have no value.”

“But look here,” the doctor would start in again, scowling painfully. “I don’t see the value of it as art and poetry-let alone reason or sense.  What’s the beauty of one dingy old tree stuck in the middle of bricks and mortar? Why, if you abolished it, you’d have room for a garage and you could go and see all the woods and forests in England-every blessed tree between Cornwall and Caithness.”

“Yes,” retorted Windrush, “and wherever I went, I should see petrol-pumps instead of trees. That is the logical end of your great progress of science and reason-and a damned illogical end to a damned unreasonable progress. Every spot of England is to be covered with petrol stations, so that people can travel about and see more petrol stations.”

More of Chesterton on voting

With primary season going into full swing, it seems time to let Chesterton speak on the topic of voting once again.  This particular passage comes from his last novel, The Return of Don Quixote.  The backstory is thus.  Michael Herne is a librarian and historian who orignally studied the ancient Hitties, but has recently decided to focus on the Middle Ages.  So fascinated is he by this historical era that he decided to dress in medieval fashion permanently and create a little band of followers who seek to restore the habits and ideals of the late Middle Ages.  At the same time, political machinations involving big industry and socialist agitators are swirling around.  Then election day arrives.

In the great General Election, which had been produced by the big menace of Braintree and his new Syndicalism, and which had led up to the launching of the movement in opposition to it, it was reported that Mr. Michael Herne had gone into a polling-booth to record his vote; and had remained there for three-quarters of an hour, mysteriously occupied or possibly engaged in prayer.  He had apparently never given a vote before; it not being a Palaeo-Hittite habit; but when it had been elaborately explained to him that he had only to make a cross on the piece of paper opposite the name of his favourite candidate, he seemed quite charmed and enchanted with the idea.  By this time, of course, his Palaeo-Hittite period had long become prehistoric and stratified in the past; and his later medieval enthusiasm devoured his days and nights.  Nevertheless he could apparently spare a somewhat abnormal time for the modern and rather mechanical process of voting; when he might have been engaged in drawing the long bow or tilting at a Saracen’s head.  Archer and his other colleagues became a little impatient, and not a little mystified, by his mysterious immersion in the ballot box; they kicked their legs restlessly outside and eventually went inside, to see his tall and motionless back still immovable in its separate cell, as of a modern confessional.  They were at last goaded to the gross indelicacy of disturbing the Citizen when alone with his Duty, by going up behind him and pulling his coat-tails.  As this had no particular effect, they committed the anarchical and anti-democratic outrage of actually looking over his shoulder.  They found that he had set out on the little shelf, as on a table, all the illumination paints (presumably borrowed from Miss Ashley), paints of gold and silver and all the colours of the rainbow.  With these he was engaged in doing his democratic duty with almost a painful care and patience.  He had been told to make a cross and he was making a cross.  He was doing it as it would have been done by a monk in the Dark Ages; that is in very gay and glorified colours.  The cross was of gold, in one corner of it were three blue birds, in another corner were three red fishes, in another plants, in another planets and so on; it seemed to be planned upon the scheme of the Canticle of the Creature of St. Francis of Assisi.  He was very much surprised to be told that this was not required by the provisions of the Ballot Act; but he controlled himself and only gave a faint sigh, when informed by the officials of the polling station that his vote was cancelled, because he had “spoilt” a ballot paper.

What I’m Reading: The Meaning of Marriage

My reading for the past week or so has been The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim and Kathy Keller.  The authors are a couple who can boast a successful 36-year marriage.  Tim is a pastor in New York City.  The book is what the title suggests, and examination of what marriage truly should be and how a biblical perspective differs from the modern world’s understanding of marriage.  The book is a perfect introduction for a recently engaged man like myself.


The authors structure the book around the passage that Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians concerning marriage:

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. [Eph 5:22:31; NIV]

As they point out, this view of marriage divides us sharply from both ancient and modern understandings.  In ancient times, marriage was for social and economic gains and alliances.  Families decided marriages for young people, and what each partner brought to the marriage was determined by their family situation.  In modern times, marriage has flipped to the opposite extreme and become based on selfishness, with numerous advisors tellings us that our marriage partner should “complete” ourselves, “fulfill” ourselves, and otherwise serve goals that are all about us.

By contrast, Paul tells that a Christian marriage is modeled on the relationship of Christ and the Church.  Christ did not seek to complete himself nor serve any other selfish goal when he sought out the Church.  Instead his goal was to lift up the Church and make her holy and perfect.  In a similar way, none of us should look at a potential marriage partner and ask how she will serve our temporary needs. Instead, we should each see a partner as a person who is on journey to the mountaintop where Christ will make us perfect.  We should enter marriage because we can see glimpses of where the partner is going, and we are uplifted and excited by the person that the partner will become with Christ’s help.  We marry because we want to take that journey together, each partner helping the other when necessary, and each growing more joyful as the other progresses.

Within that framework, The Meaning of Marriage has lots of practical advice, and it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf, whether for the unmarried, the recently married, or those past their silver anniversary.

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