All posts by tdaxp

Impressions of “The Devil’s Bargain” by Joshua Green and “Hacks” by Donna Brazile

I recently read two books focusing on adjunct figures to the 2016 election: The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency about Trump’s third campaign manager, and Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that put Donald Trump in the White House by the former Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (Donna Brazile). They are parallel books: Brazile is a media personality and the book is obviously designed to improve her own image. Likewise, Bannon is so transparently the source of Devil’s Bargain the book is essentially written by him, except for some obvious sops designed to expand the book’s reader base.

Both books are more interesting than Shattered, the story about the inside of the Clinton campaign written by two professional journalists. While that book provided additional depth to the decision by the Clinton campaign to embrace identity politics as a campaign strategy, both Bargain and Hacks expand the discussion beyond what was commonly discussed.

I was impressed by the focus of both books on the new opportunities and threats presented by the internet and internet culture. For Bannon, the protagonist of Bargain, it is the communities that exist beneath the sites of the mainstream media. An early business opportunity, trying to professionalize the “gold miner” community in the popular online game World of Warcraft, failed because of an organized customer revolt that spooked the gamer’s manufacturer but never made the news. The shadow of this could be felt years later in the sub-cultural hashtag campaigns #gamergate, #sadpuppies, and even #maga. For Brazile, who was more involved with the operations of the Democratic Party fund-raising machine than the campaign itself, the previously unknown threat was “hacking.” I was impressed by the seriousness Brazile gave to this issue. She’s clearly not an information security professional, but she honestly expresses her fear and bewilderment at this sometimes confusing world. Hacks is the most accurate depiction of the CrowdStrike security I have seen in any book outside of a trade press.

It’s interesting that neither perspective is flattering to Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor whose career at MSNBC is now being covered by Bannon’s news company. “Trump’s toughest opponents in Cleveland were not his fellow candidates but the Fox News moderates, who went right after him” — writes Green — “none with more gusto than Kelly.” Brazile writes of an interview with Kelly, “It was less of an interview than an ambush. She was so eager to get to me that when she saw me approaching, her producers yanked Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway out of the chair almost mid-sentence so I could sit down right away. Megyn was gunning for me.” And Bannon reminisces about wealthy bullies at his old school: “They were the rich snobs. They’d always do the employer-employee joke at us: ‘When you grow up, you’ll work for us,’ And we’d punch them in the nose.”

Both books contain claims that are factually.. questionable. It’s obvious in Bargain the writer is surrounded by secular society and treats religion like an anthropologist would treat a remote tribe: for example, “the Latin-only Tridentine Mass, which was banned by the Second Vatican council.” Likewise, Donna Brazile is often more interesting to read between the lines than at face value, for instance when she was disinterested in building her own base of support: “” But here, Brazile’s book is better constructed. In the places that either leave the literal truth, Brazile’s writing still leaves it clear what message she wants sent (often it is to praise or blame specific allies or enemies). Green’s errors, by contrast, seem lazy. You can read a sentence from Brazile’s book, such as — “When [a Hatian AM radio host asked me when the campaign was going to start a dialogue with his audience, I knew what he meant by that. When were they going to spend a few hundred dollars in advertising there, which would encourage him to urge his followers to get out and vote?” — and it i sclear that so-and-so is asking for a bribe. A sentence like this the Latin mass comment from Bargain, however, just leaves the reader with the impression that the writer is not versed in the relevant subject matter.

This is especially disappointing in light of the fact that both Bannon and Brazile are Catholics. Pope Francis, author of Laudito Si, comes under attack by Bannon: Bargain quotes Bannon as calling Francis “a liberal theology Jesuit” and a “pro-immigration globalist.” Brazile does not discuss theology, but is interested in how Catholic rites can impact the everyday world: she prays for both victory and proper ordering, and uses Holy Water on offices of the Democratic National Committee.

My high-level impression of Bargain is that it is predictable result of a liberal journalist attempting to flatter a conservative source. Hacks, by contrast, is hatchet job by an insider against other insiders, combined with a surprisingly accurate outsider’s discussion of a security incident response operation. You can pass on Bargain. Hacks is great fun.

In an amusing twist, you can read a favorable comment on Hacks from Steve Bannon’s media company. I read both Devil’s Bargain and Hacks in the Kindle editions.

Impressions of “Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King,” by Matthew W. Bates

Summary: The word most Bibles translate as “fide,” “faith,” or “belief” is better translated as “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” Phrases like “repent and believe in me” are offers of amnesty to defeated enemies, who are given the opportunity to join the winning army. Paul was contrasting loyalty to a King with a legalistic parsing of his rules — ain’t no rule of law on the battlefield. The Reformation-era argument over “Faith alone” was a consequence of arguing in Ecclesiastic Latin over translations in Vulgate Latin of Greek terms.

I then called Jesus to me by himself, and told him, that I was not a stranger to that treacherous design he had against me, nor was I ignorant by whom he was sent for; that, however, I would forgive him what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me hereafter.”
Titus Flavius Josephus, The Life of Josephus, circa AD 99

Repent, and believe in me
N.T. Wright’s translation, in The Challenge of Jesus

Faith Alone

“When I asked my counselors how this might be accomplished, Haman — who excels among us in sound judgment, and is distinguished for his unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity, and has attained the second place in the kingdom—
Additions to Esther 13:3

Three phrases summarize much of the Protestant Reformation — Faith Alone! Grace Alone! Scripture Alone! But the translation of these Hebrew Greek concepts — especially pistis as ‘Faith’ or ‘Fide’ and charis as “Grace” or “Gracia” — hide as much of the original meaning as they reveal. For example. the word translated as “fidelity” in describing the evil minister Haman — pistis — is the same word that is translated as “faith” or “belief” when used by Paul in the New Testament.

In Salvation by ALlegiance Alone: rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Matthew Bates argues that both sides of the debate around the Protestant Reformation were overly reliant on Latin translations of Paul that did not accurately capture his meaning. That the Catholic faith was proclaimed in Latin, and the Protestant battle cries of Sola Fide and Sola Gracia were in Latin (a language that Paul did not write in, even when writing to Rome) and not in Greek (the language Paul actually used) greatly mislead both sides about the actual meaning of the Paul’s letters on faith and grace.

In short, Bates argues that Jesus and Paul use an extended military-religious analogy of a militant church. Christ is a conquering King. He has gracefully offered us not only terms of surrender, but a position in his military. We must be like Marines seperated from our main force by an enemy counter-attack: wise enough to understand the comamnder’s intent of the orders we received, and faithful to our God and our King. Indeed, “faith” or pistis means loyalty in the practical sense. In the Third Book of Maccabees (which whether or not it is Scripture, shows how Greek was written and understood in the classical Near east) is given by Jews to a foreign royal house!

While these plans were being put into action, some people plotted to injure the Jewish nation by circulating a hostile report against them on the pretext that the Jews were hindering others from practicing their own customs. But the Jews were maintaining goodwill and unswerving loyalty toward the royal house. 3 Maccabees 3:2-3

I’ve argued along similar lines before. On a secular level the writings of Paul provide a guide for a Christian insurgency, and the a Covenant is an explicitly military and political document. My thinking along these lines was greatly expanded by Michael Heiser’s focus on a war extending into the supernatural plane, and Taylor Marshall’s description of Peter as the annotated Prime Minister of the Kingdom. Bates further expands this mental world by describing what “faith” and “grace” actually meant in first century Palestine.

Of course, orders can be interpreted in bad “faith” (where the commander’s intent is malicious ignored), in order to provide a corrupted allegiance. Orders might also be followed without understanding (where the literally execution without reference to commander’s intent can lead to a disastrous outcome). In this, Paul (a former rabbi and a student of famous rabbis) would strongly agree with Rabbi Federow’s defense of rabbinical law: the point is not that a dead body, or bacon, or what-have-you is intrinsically evil, but it is ladder that one can climb actual virtue. Which is to say, we go to boot camp before we can follow the King on the battlefield. Or, as Paul said

But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Galatians 3:23-24

Grace Alone

So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king.
Esther 2:16-18

Just as the word we read as “Faith” in Greek is pistis, or “Allegiance,” the word we read as “Grace is charis, or gift. But Bates argues that the nature of this “gift” is misunderstood on both a personal and a corporate level. Personally, “faith” is from “grace” precisely because we are offered the opportunity to join a conquering army.

When General Josephus said to the rebel commander, “Repent, and have allegiance in me” he was offering the rebel commander the gift, or grace, of joining his army. This did not mean the rebel had to do nothing. Rather, it mean the alternative to doing the right thing was death. Accept the gift of the opportunity of demonstrating allegiance, or be put to the sword.

Recognizing that Christians are members (distinct specialized units) in the Body of Christ further resolves another Reformation-era controversy. Who is the “us” that is predestined?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
Ephesians 1:3-12

The answer: The Body of Christ, the Church: those that work for him

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Romans 8:28-30

Bates argues that every New Testament verse that speaks of pre-election is corporate, not individual, and is identifying the Conquering Army which the Conquering King leads. Given either bravery or cowardice, any individual can enter or leave an army as he wishes. But the Army has been chosen. The Body of Christ cannot possibly turn away, the military will not ever be dissuaded. But any individual soldier may come and go.

But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
1 Corinthians 12:20-27

Scripture Alone

But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times, for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice
Esther 1:12-13

While Allegiance Alone is a fascinating defense and reinterpretation of “Faith Alone” and “Grace Alone,” the equally Protestant demand of “Scripture Alone” is not present. In one way this is because the theology of Matthew Blake is Christ-centered. The entire book is outlined with the key that the Apostles Creed is the key to understanding the entire Gospel. He considers the Creed, it the equivalence of the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing that “believe” in contemporary English is best understood as pistis — allegiance. As the Son is the enthroned King of the Universe, our pledge of allegiance to Him is particularly important:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

If Sola Fide means we are saved only by our Allegiance, and Sola Gracia reminds us we only have the opportunity to be allegiant because the new King invited us to His Army, what might be the resolution to Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone?

Perhaps, that it contains the entirety of our general orders, which kept us under guard until the Transfiguration. The presense of Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John for the declaration of the Rule of the Son is the most monumental event in the history of the Kingdom of Israel…

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”
Matthew 17:1-7

… since the similar announcement about David’s son, Solomon:

Then King David answered and said, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king took an oath and said, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life from every distress, just as I swore to you by the Lord God of Israel, saying, ‘Assuredly Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so I certainly will do this day.”
Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the earth, and paid homage to the king, and said, “Let my lord King David live forever!”
And King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. The king also said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and take him down to Gihon.
1 Kings 1:28-33

Christianity did not produce a new religion, but revealed historical changes in the history of the unfolding and divinely ordained Kingdom of Israel. The requirements are the same as they have always been. Allegiance to God. What has changed is the historical circumstances. As the true King announced Solomon was the true King, God Himself commanded the disciples to hear Christ.

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”
Galatians 3:10-11

‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’
“And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’
Deuteronomy 27:26

Bates says what Paul calls “works of the law” are dangerous, because they attempt a legalistic minimal effort to obey the maximum number of orders, ignoring the Commander’s Intent. The problem with a Law-based approach is that perfectly acceptable clarifying questions, such as how we are to determine who is in active collaboration with the Enemy, given the order to deescalate conflicts with both restless locals and irregulars

But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Matthew 5:39-42

Yet, any sailor or marine who asked follow-up questions about general orders such as:

  • Regarding ‘fraternizing with the enemy,’ in what circumstance smight I be allowed to regularly communicate with officers on the general staff of the enemy?
  • What, specifically, is the definition of treason? Does it depend on being paid for working against our army? If so, how much?

Such a sailor may not actuall ybe afithful at all!

Earlier I emphasized the same point by a World War II analogy — A “Covenant” is literally an Instrument of Surrender, a “Law” is a “General Order,” and the Conqueror is both the judge and jury over any questions of whether or not you were properly steadfast and followed commander’s intent in executing those orders.

Final Thoughts

Allegiance Alone is a fascinating book. It fits in with a cluster of books which seek a military/political interpretation of the life of Christ without reducing Jesus to a politician. Rather, all argue the certain types seen in the Old Testament — such as the Kingdom, the King, the Prime Minister, the Queen Mother. We are soldiers in a militant church. And our retirement benefits sound pretty good: we may even good cushy jobs managing angels.

We just passed the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation, specifically the rupturing of communion between a largely Germanic northern Europe and a largely Romance southern Europe. In some areas, like the nature of the miraculous appearance of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, it seems there was no real disagreement at all, but differently ways of describing the same mystery. In other areas, of course, there were and are disagreements. The New Perspective on Paul, a largely Protestant movement to better understand Paul by paying attention to the meaning of Greek words and phrases Paul used (instead of relying on later Latin commentaries) may have opened up another area of agreement.

A good interview with Matthew Bates is available on the Shaun Tabatt Show. I read Salvation by Allegiance Alone in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “The Dark Forest,” by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Three-Body Problem, one of the best science fiction novels I ever read. Three Body starts with a bang, the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, China. Characters were well developed, and both sentimental and ghastly motivations are pained as flowing naturally from surviving the insanity of that era. Three Body also balanced two different time periods, the Cultural Revolution and the near future, as well as a virtual environment that closely connects the other two settings. It is a “hard” science fiction story, where special attention is given to explaining the plausibility and possible mechanics of future technology. And last, Three-Body carefully navigated (and even more carefully, comments upon) the censored and politically-monitored nature of speech in China.

The Dark Forest has none of these virtues. Substantial sections appear to be written by a Communist party literary committee, which they may well have been. Characters are two-dimensional tropes, and social motivation is simply bizarre. The ending is easily guessed. It is twice as long. Grudgingly, I will read the next book in the series and finish the trilogy.

So many things are radically different I wonder if The Dark Forest was originally supposed to have continuity with Three-Body at all. While Three-Body invokes hard science fiction extensively, one could substitute the aliens for Russians, Japanese, or Americans, and the story would make sense. Indeed, that may have been the problem. I’m aware of at least one other award winning science fiction where the original text of the sequel was rewritten to have continuity with the first book (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), so it would not surprise me the same thing happened here. While the length of The Dark Forest is about twice the length, a major theme of Three-Body (the difficulty of individuals aligning themselves with the goals of a government organization, from low-level lumberjacks to high-level politburo members) is entirely gone. Every government official appears to be basically productive and well-meaning. “Neighborhood committee” members and “political officers” receive special adulation.

In keeping with the Communist Party discipline that appears to be behind much of the book, religion is almost entirely expunged. The Catholic and Buddhist architecture of Beijing is described in Three Body, as are some contrasts between those religions. Understanding the enigmatic prayer, ‘Lord, save my Lord’ is part of the reader’s motivation to unravel the mystery, and the unique perspective of author Cixin Liu means Three-Body is neither a religious tract nor an atheist screed. That’s replaced with an almost complete absence of religion except as a dressing for basic emotions. Early in the book Osama bin Laden states that the core of all religious belief is simply hatred, while later in the book a character id described as an angel and as God himself for taking military command.

Buried in The Dark Forest is half of an excellent sequel. Three-Body ended in a moment of heightened tension for all characters. In the very last page two characters discuss the situation, and an interesting metaphor is raised. That metaphor is abandoned in Dark Forest, the tension dissipates almost completely, and all important actions are the result of deus ex machina — arbitrary events and decisions that are explained afterwards. The final communication process (for all war is communication) is interesting, but the reader only sees the end of it, as a tremendous amount just happens off-page. In Three-Body intelligent and learned individuals discuss ideas as they are using them. The shock of The Dark Forest‘s ending depends entirely on not being familiar with game theory or bargaining.

Reading The Dark Forest was fascinating, because besides the story and the writing, there is a real-life story about an original science fiction epic coming out of China. Something is happening in our real world, and both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are part of it. For this reason I will finish the trilogy, and hope it recovers. For now, I am not optimistic.

From the American publisher’s website, I found a link to this fan-made, impressionistic film “Waterdrop,” an homage to The Dark Forest in general and one chapter in particular. The short piece does a terrific job expressing The Dark Forest at its best, without giving away any important plot elements

I read The Dark Forest in the audible edition.

Impressions of “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” by Jon Padgett

The papers contained words, mostly filled out in a miniature, spidery longhand, that resembles neither your elegant script nor my careful cursive. These pages seem to be in the form of journal entries, though I question their nonfictional authenticity for reasons that will become obvious. I wonder if you’ll have any insight on who wrote them or how they came to be squirreled away under the mattress that I’ve slept upon for so many years. The following is a transcription of the text.
“Origami Dreams,” in The Secret of Ventriloquism

Let me begin with this: Jon Padgett deserves a place in the philosophical horror pantheon along with H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti.

By this I don’t just mean that Jon Padgett is knowledgeable about horror like S.T. Joshi, or can write an interesting story like Colin Wilson. Nor that Jon Padgett is capable of writing a competent Lovecraft or Ligotti pastiche. But rather, he can deconstruct the genre to find the essential elements, and reconstruct it in a way that combines a plausible philosophy of the universe with the horror sensibility.

Both Lovecraft and Ligotti had distinct philosophical voices. For Lovecraft it was materialism, and for Ligotti anti-natalism. Lovecraft to a great extent also pushed the idea of a coherent universe that his stories took place in, while Ligotti largely limited himself to shared elements except in certain books, such as the Nightmare Factory. Padgett combines both of these themes by embracing Realism, and then unfolding the stories that show both in their content and pattern the horror beneath Realism.

“Realism” is the philosophical idea that specific things (that dog, this sign, the person crossing the road in front of me right now) really exist. Another example: you really exist. The you you were yesterday, the you you are today, and the you yo are tomorrow are really and truly the same person.There is only one You.

The horror of Realism is an implication that is not obvious: if the real ‘you’ is continuous across time, the ‘you’ today is just a thin sheet of line of that real you that moves across space and time. Throughout The Secret of Ventriloquism, Podgett uses metaphors like “origami” (the careful unfolding-and-refolding of paper), daddy-longlegs (and their painfully thin legs) or “fog” (uncondensced matter, the phase of matter where everything is potential from one solidity to another).

“These are the remains of the transmuted dead. The tainted air feeds the infusoria, transforming vulnerable Dunnstowners into living skeletons. But the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist. It turns the skeletons into more of itself. That’s the punchline. It’s exponential. Every year more of the non-killed transition, every year blacker fog, and one day all the residents will change. And when that final transformation comes, the whole town — everything in it and below it — will awaken from this borrowed reality into another one.
“The Infusorium,” in The Secret of Ventriloquism

Theists can reject Lovecraft’s horror as simply wrong — materialism has become less plausible the more I live, and I suspect that has been the human experience throughout history. Ligotti is subversive — he recognizes the part of “God is good” that theists really need faith for is “good” — that the unhuman God is not an inhuman God — and his horror reflects that. But Podgett cuts to the core: the horror is an intrinsic property of existence. The unfolding of paper, the razor-sharp legs of a moving object, the fog between solid times, the not-quit-realness while we remember what we were and we hope for what we become. This is as true whether you are a Christian exponent of realism, such as St. Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis, or “Solomon Kroth, Esoterician.”

The genre of The Secret of Ventriloquism is post-modern, approaching only the Bible in the variety of forms it takes. The central story — “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” — is a how-to document. The closest we get of an explanation of the document is a stage play, complete with stage direction and a one-act structure: “The Secret of Ventriloquism” The book begins with directions to guided mediation which is arguably not a story at all, and then a trope of horror, the first person confession in a timeless situation (two boys who fight). Later in the volume we gain access to a statement from a police officer where expectations are constantly subverted, a Ligottian tale of a vacation gone wrong, and a beautiful pastiche of gas station carnivals — “The Indoor Swamp.” “Escape to Thin Mountain,” which ties together several stories, is a reworking of a one-page Ligotti story, but far exceeds the original. And my favorite is “Origami Dreams,” which the more you think about it the sadder and more realistic it is.

I cannot recommend The Secret of Ventriloquism enough. I remember where I was when first seriously read Lovecraft, and where I was when I first seriously read Ligotti. Padgett has just begun publishing. I can’t wait for his career to unfold.

I read The Secret of Ventriloquism in the Kindle edition. Jon Padgett has narrated stories both by Thomas Ligotti and himself, maintains Thomas Ligotti Online, and has an  active twitter account.

Impressions of “Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputatoin of 1263, A Grpahic History,” by Nina Caputo and Liz Clarke

In modern terms, a Dominican monk named Paul Christiani sued for the right to preach in Jewish synagogues. This lead to a public trial, with Paul as the plaintiff, Nachmanides, a respected local rabbi as defendant, and King James I as judge. But part of the legal argument was this: Jews already accepted Jesus a Christ, synagogues were crypto-Jewish churches, and this could be proven using only Jewish religious texts! This con-texts used are fascinating, as not only excludes New Testament letters to the Jews (such as Matthew and Hebrews) and pre-Hebraic sources (Stories from Ancient Canaan, Assembly of the Gods) were excluded, the trial intentionally added texts not typically part of Christian hermeneutics — the Babylonian Talmud.

And thus, the first wrinkle: for Paul Christiani was an adult Jewish convert to Catholocism. He had a literate, adult understanding of Judaism as it was actually practiced and believed, not simply an academics understanding of the Hebrew parts of the bible. The Jewish tradition Peter and Paul learned including not only the Hebrew Bible (which makes up the bulk of the Catholic Old Testament), but also the Talmud, including oral laws not written down in the written Torah, explanations and rulings on those laws, as analysis and commentaries.

In these impressions I will describe the most fascinating part for me, wonder about the Friar’s and the Rabbi’s actual views of the Talmud, and note some arguments that I had expected to read from both Paul and Nahmanides, but which were not included in the disputation.

Possible the most fascinating paragraph is one in Nahmanides’ account, describing Paul’s use of the Talmud during the disputation.  Paul seeks Talmudic support for the notion that the Messiah was born in the first century:

Friar Paul then claimed that in the Talmud it is said that the messiah has already come.

He adduced the story in Midrash Lamentations concerning a man who was plowing and whose ox lowed. An Arab passed and said to him:

“Jew, Jew, unhitch your ox, unhitch your ploughshare, unhitch your plough for the Temple has been destroyed.”

He unhitched his ox, unhitched his ploughshare, and unhitched his plough. The ox lowed a second time.  The Arab said to him:

“Hitch up your ox, hitch up your ploughshare, hitch up your plough, for your messiah has been born.”

I responded: “I do not believe in this story at all, but it is a proof for my view.”

He then cried out: “Behold he denies their books.”

I learned a lot from this simple exchange. First, that the end of the Second Temple period was not only traumatic for Judaism, but also (for at least some Jews) led to a sustained belief that the Messiah was born… and that belief was in someone other than Jesus. I had never heard this, and it emphasizes the point that Judaism is not “just” the Judaism of Jesus’s day — it was not static.

I wonder what was Frair Paul’s view of the Talmud. Was he using it simply as a rhetorical device? Or as a Jewish convert to Christianity, did he believe that it was an authentic if culturally distinct part of the Christian religion — analogous to the view of some Christians toward Messianic Judaism. Likewise, from what I can read online, Nachmanides is famous not just for his role in the disputation, but also for his in-depth criticism of the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides, as well as his work on the Kabbalah. He also seems to have had a complicated relationship with the Talmud — one I barely am aware of. I am reminded of my experience reading The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Interpretation of the Koran, which page after page reminded me of the the deep linguistic/historical/cultural/religious foundations I do not have.

Both Friar Paul and Rabbi Nachmanides fail to make claims that I to me seem obvious for their positions. For example, take the part of the disputation where Friar Paul is arguing for Talmudic support to the idea that the LORD would be incarnate among men:

Again he returned [to his previous line of argument] and brought evidence from the Midrash where they said: “It is written, ‘And I will walk among you (Leviticus 26:12). They likened this [example] to one it resembles, [about] a king who went out for a walk with his laborer in his orchard, but the laborer hid himself. The king asked, ‘Why do you hide, for behold, I am like you.’ In the same manner, in the future, the Holy One, blessed is He, will walk in the Garden of Eden among the righteous, who will be afraid of Him, in the future to come. The Holy One, blessed is He, will say: ‘Why do you tremble before me? I am like you. I will be your God, and you shall be My people (Leviticus 26:12).’ Since God said, ‘I am like you,’ it shows he turned into a man, like them.”

An omission made by Friar Paul is puzzling to me. It seems significant, but neither the Latin nor Hebrew accounts of the disputation include any reference to the “Angel of the LORD,” which would appear to be an obvious place to make such a claim in the Hebrew Bible. The “Angel of the LORD” appears both anthropomorphic but also speaks as if it was the LORD Himself. But neither party makes an appeal to these references, such as

Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this?
Judges 2:1-2

And thus it would seem neither of them found these passages meaningful to this question.

Likewise, I was surprised that Nachmanides never used what is now a common argument within evangelical circles to buttress his case: that the Hebrew Bible intentionally makes it impossible to identify the Christian Messiah — in the contemporary words of the Catholic Church, that “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old ” (Dei Verbum). The best elucidation of this argument is from Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, where he argues the secrecy was to prevent those who would harm the Messiah from knowing his identifying too soon. By this logic the Transfiguration (when Moses and Elijah joined a council of Peter, James, and John) around the Messiah was a climactic revelation that could not have been predicted from Hebrew texts alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Matthew 17:9

The obvious implication of the New Testament being “hidden” and the identity of the Messiah being kept secret is that these cannot be proven from the old revelation alone.

Nevertheless, Friar Paul never takes what seems like an obvious swing in his direction, Rabbi Nachmanides does not take the same swing the other way.

Debating Truth is written an four sections: a comic book style close paraphrase of the disputation, a number of legal documents (including chronologies of the disputation from both sides), a historical section providing context for the disputation, and finally a historiographic analysis of how reliable the different texts actually are. This organization is brilliant. It is easy and fun to read the comic-book close translation of the debate. The original documents provide a post-modern breakdown of the event as seen from Friar Paul, Rabbi Nachmanides, King James, and the Pope, the “context” provides some background primarily on Catalonia and the Jewish community, and histiography raises serious questions about what we actually know about the original documents.

I come to this book having recently read biographies of two famous friars, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis, as well as a Madigan’s history of medieval Christianity. Both focus on the role of the friars in turning to the personal and intellectual experiences, as opposed to the sacraments-alone (at best) or simply corrupt corrupt (at worst) nature of many parishes and monasteries. I would have liked the connection between the revolt of the friars and the disputation to be more clear.  Likewise, much more biographical information on Nachmanides and King James is provided than for Friar Paul, and to me this makes for an unbalanced presentation.

Yet the book was striking, incredibly informative, rich in detail and background, and opened my eyes to much I did not know before.  What else could I ask!  I’m so glad I read this in the paperback edition.

I also recommend this terrific interview with an author.

Impressions of “St Francis of Assisi” and “St Thomas Aquinas,” by G.K. Chesterton

Before last month, I was almost completely ignorant of the Coming of the Friars. After reading about it, I read two more books on the subjects.

The coming of the Friars is the term used in Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History. It refers to the Catholic revolution in religious life against what had been left of the Monks and the Priests in the Dark Ages. Priests re-presented the Sacrifice of the Lord, monks said prayers and copied books, and there were some monks who were also priests. These were lawful and legitimate, but what was left off was the people, and, sometimes, reverence. Normal people of could would not hear the masses said in monasteries, and in the parishes priests often did not bother with homilies. Often this extended to both monks and priests either being illicitly married or at least openly keeping mistresses. Both positions became, to some extent, heritable.

Ironically, G.K. Chesterton sees one cause of this problem as an otherworldly philosophy adopted by many in the church, and based on the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions was so vivid as to his personality this seems odd, but I’m aware of his Neo-Platonist sympathies. Anyway, near the end of Confessions is what I had taken for a garbled pre-psychological attempt to understand the cognitive process Chesterton makes a tremendous deal out of this, and sees it as evidence of a focus on the ideal (what Lewis would call the “hygienic”) over the Creation that God called “good.”

Francis and Thomas were very different men, Chesterton says they are as unique as saints. Chesterton always describes Francis as leaping or in a hurry, and Thomas as plodding — the “dumb ox” his old school nickname. Something of the difference between these two saints can be seen in excerpts from their writings. Both are certainly Christian writings, and indeed they were both revolutionary affirmations of the actual created world ( in contrast to an excessive, disembodied spirtuality), but who could confuse Francis:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
The Canticle of the Sun

for Thomas:

Article 1. Whether Christ should have been circumcised?

Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should not have been circumcised. For on the advent of the reality, the figure ceases. But circumcision was prescribed to Abraham as a sign of the covenant concerning his posterity, as may be seen from Genesis 17. Now this covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s birth. Therefore circumcision should have ceased at once.

Objection 2. Further, “every action of Christ is a lesson to us” [Innoc. III, Serm. xxii de Temp.; wherefore it is written (John 3:15): “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” But we ought not to be circumcised; according to Galatians 5:2: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” Therefore it seems that neither should Christ have been circumcised.

Objection 3. Further, circumcision was prescribed as a remedy of original sin. But Christ did not contract original sin, as stated above (III:14:3; III:15:1). Therefore Christ should not have been circumcised.

On the contrary, It is written (Luke 2:21): “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.”

[etc]
Summa Theologiae, III:37

Their individuality extends to the least-probable events in their respect lives. Thomas was the cousin of a Holy Roman Emperor, who when he announced his desire to be an abbot, his well-off family effectively bought him a monastery and installed him as abbot. When he became a friar and was on his first mission his brothers, so outraged at the idea of a non-corrupt monk, they kidnapped him and paid to have a harlot seduce him! Leading to perhaps the worst performance evaluation of all time, as the young saint chased the young woman out of his room with a fire poker!

Francis’s actions were on a larger scale, though perhaps to less effect. During the military campaign of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) Sultan traveled to Crusader-occupied Egypt, crossed enemy lines, requested and received an audience from the Sultan, and tried (though failed) to convert him to Christianity. The Fifth Crusade was odd for a number of reasons, such as including the (Muslim!) Sultanate of Rum among the Crusader-alliance, but perhaps an analogy would have been a Taoist monk from China travelling to Tokyo during World War II and personally attempting to convert the Emperor from Shintoism — and surviving.

It’s odd both, near the end of their life, had a vivid and disturbing vision. Francis saw a vision of a crucified Seraph — my immediate reaction, and apparently Chesterton’s, was surprise that an Angel could be crucified. (That is, presuming the God-who-became-Man is not also a God-who-became-Angel… the Angel of the LORD. And while Francis’s version is most disturbing only in the context of angelology, Thomas (who knew angelology forwards and backwards) never shared what caused him to remark:

all that I have written seems like straw to me”

It’s somewhat distrubing that both episodes can be specifically dated. Francis saw a six-winged angel on a cross on September 12, 1224. Whatever Thomas saw, he saw on December 6, 1273.

It’s striking how many reformers lived in this period. Francis (1181-1226) and Thomas (1225-1274) were, barely, contemporaries. The Pope who Francis begged to recognize his order, Pope Innocent III (1198-126), who transformed the Papacy into a weak plaything of stronger powers and brought two empires to heel, was too. Saint Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Dominicans and who was vital in the Albigensian Crusade, met Francis before Francis traveled to the Arab world to attempt to personally convert the Sultan. Later all of these men would lead to a degeneration in another age of reform. But the reform of these men was continuous, it did not break Christian unity, even under the dangerous shoals of human corruption and weakness.

These two volumes are probably the best works by G.K. Chesterton I have read. They are far better than Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was very good, but it is a short spy thriller/satire — a very different genre. The closest book in terms of subject and quality is his reflection on the importance of Jesus Christ — The Everlasting Man (1925) — but Chesterton does a better job explaining the historical significance of Saint Francis (1923) and Saint Thomas (1933) than he does of the Lord.

I read both St. Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas in the audible editions.

Impressions of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem was a landmark for me. It is the longest novel I’ve read in a half decade, since John Derbyshire’s historical fiction Fire from the Sun. I’ve been away from fiction for a long time. Three Body Problem is a great way to return.

By genre, Three-Body is hard sci-fi, with philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and the religion. Structurally it is a combination of mystery (the modern-day scenes, beginning in Beijing and concluding in the Chinese countryside) and drama (historical scenes, with the reverse progression). It has a third thread, a narration of experience in a computer game, that ends up being critical to understanding both main threads.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember discussions on the “5th generation of war,” or 5GW — a type of war that is fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. The military action within Three-Body comprises all three kinds of 5GWinsurgent 5GW of a small armed group against a society, a state-within 5GW where a clique inside the host society attempts to transform it, and state-without 5GW where a government attacks a society.

The author is an engineer who was born and lives in the People’s Republic of China — an officially atheist society. So the discussion of religion were especially intriguing. Buddhism seems to be disparaged, described (unlike Christianity) as not being person-centric, and with pilgrims who appear to be in a daze. By contrast St. Joseph’s Church is one of the landmarks of Beijing held out for special admiration. The definition of ‘God’ used by characters tends to be deistic (belief in an orderly universe created by a minimally involved God). The religious feeling and looked-for purification created by certain interactions in Three Body recalls the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.

Three Body problem reminds me of primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also similarity to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. That Hideous Strength is so similar to the mystery thread of Three Body Problem I wonder if it was intentional: the character known as the “the Commander” in Three Body is a composite of the Head and the Deputy Director in Strength. Like Fire from the Sun it is a beautiful and tragic look at the experience of Chinese youth who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Rainbbow Six contributes an interesting ecological narrative, while Red Mars is a clear inspiration in hard (or technically plausible) science fiction.

It was quite the treat to discover this book, a great mix of history, science, and fiction that ties into so many of my interests. No wonder it won the 2015 Hugo Award.

Now, on to the sequel…

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.

Impressions of “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” and “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,” by C.S. Lewis

The Weight of Glory (AD 1942) and Letters to Malcolm (AD 1964) are both Christian non-fiction works by CS Lewis, probably the best Christian writer of the 20th century. They are both written in his easy style — though more like one believer exchanging notes with another rather than tools for conversion — and both are relatively short. But more than a generation separate their publications, and in that time Lewis honed his craft. Yet they are the work of the same man. They are reflections — transpositions or projections — of the same mind.

The cover for Letters to Malcolm shown above contains part of the Flower of Life, one of the many shadows a hypercube onto a 2 dimensional surface.  A hypercube, when unfolded onto 3 dimensions, makes the shape of a cross. Our human brains are not evolved to understand 4-Dimensional entities, so all the graphics in this post are different ways of translating what a cube of cubes means onto a computer page.  In both of these books, C.S. Lewis tries to project man’s relationship with God, or at least the hyperdimensional nature of God’s presence, onto paper.

The Weight of Glory is a collection of nine lectures, but the central core is #4, “Transposition,” an accessible guide to an abstract theological issue. Letters to Malcolm may be the finest writing Lewis ever produced — it only appears to be straight-forward, but is as strong and subversive a defense of Christianity as St Augustine’s Confessions (AD 400).

Days of the week

The most striking line of St Augustine’s writings, to Christians who nowadays bother to read it, is probably this:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

The context for the bolded section is the chief difficulty that St Augustine had in converting to Christianity: how could an educated, modern world accept the literal truth of the Bible, with its bizarre miracles (Jonah being swallowed by a whale; Christ feeding the multitude with a few fishes and loaves). Augustine’s solution was that these “names” in fact “signify” sacramental truths. While Augustine’s writing is latinate and complex, it appears he does not believe in the literal truth of either miracle.

Without getting into specific historical claims (the general pattern of Biblical literature implies to me the The Book of Jonah is written as a comedy, or at least a satire), Lewis introduces the concept of “transposition.” Lewis means by transposition what geometers mean by “projection” — the translation of an object from a higher dimension to a lower one. For instance, if you had a cube, you could project (or in Lewis’s term, “transpose”) is into a square — that is one correct way of viewing a cube on flat paper. Or you could use perspective, and show that cube as a sequence of angled rectangles. Lewis gives an example of projecting/transposing a beach onto paper by drawing it with pencils.

Thus, lines like “thrones and dominions,” or “on the right hand of the Father,” or (perhaps) “fishes” and “whales” are projects into a lower-dimensional space of higher-dimensional reality. Lewis elides the dimensionality at which this stops. For instance, is it the case that fishes and whales are 3D dimensional projections of higher-dimensionality reality, or (to follow Augustine) are the names fishes and whales themselves the lower-dimensional projection.

“Transposition” is the hermeneutic key of The Weight of Glory. But it’s also the key I think, to Letters to Malcolm, an extremely readable book on the importance of prayer. Transposition matters in thinking about the nature of time. And it matters in thinking about the nature of Scripture.

Christians are told to pray for their “daily bread.” While “thy will be done” might be translated as “… if it’s actually a good idea,” most of us have our own ideas that we are encouraged to pray for. Peace or victory, justice or forgiveness, a raise or a successful relationship. But in many cases a “successful” prayer would require not simply changing the future, but also the past. For instance, if you receive a letter from a lawyer, and you pray it is good news, the only way that pray could “work” is if the prayer succeeded in changing the the past event of composing that letter.

Atheists accuse Christians of thinking they have a a “friend in the sky.” But it is more accurate to say the sky is in Him. In the same way, urgent prayers do not hope for a friendly response in time — they hope for a response for He whom Time is within. Time is not absolute reality, God is.

Let’s put it another way. We are used to logical thinking, such that if something is a square it cannot be a triangle, or a point. But a pyramid is a square on its bottom, a triangle on its side, and a point on its top. These lower-dimensional shapes are projected (or Lewis would say, transposed) from the higher-dimensional object of a pyramid. The drawing of a pyramid on the dollar bill is just one of many projections of a pyramid, including just one of the possibly projections or transpositions of its shapes. Likewise, the hypercube when further unrolled (transposed) onto 3 dimensional space is a cross, and when projected (transposed) head-on, it appears to be composed of five squares.  Or any of the other shapes in this blog post.

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point. And (given the trickiness in rotating all of space-time to change the plane of reality), the phrase “Thy Will be Done” might be understood as “If that’s actually a good idea.”

Which is weighty and glorious. Until He answers our prayers with “No,” or “Not yet.” Then we remember that the angels are like fire, and He is like a bull.

I read Letters to Malcom and The Weight of Glory in their Audible editions.

Impressions of “Medieval Christianity: A New History,” by Kevin Madigan

Medieval Christianity is the story of the western Church between the years of Donatus (during the late Roman Empire) and Martin Luther (who was nine years old when the New World was discovered). This comprehensive history provides a discussion of both the recent research into this period, as well as the lives and organizations that shaped it. If there is a theme it is the recurrent trend of weakness, purifying reaction, and then counter-reaction. This process involved, in different ears, both the institutional Church, her would be saviors, and her enemies.

An implication of this cycle view is that the purifying reformers are as much of a danger as the weak ones they reacted to themselves. While one corrupted the church body through inaction and frailty of will, the other corrupted the church body through overreaction and the frailty of mercy.

Donatus (and the Donatist Hersey named after him) is a good example. During the Roman persecution many bishops gave into fear, handing over precious objects and performing rights to the Emperor. A number of these bishops were ex-communicated during the persecution for this. But after the persecution ended, the wayward bishops confessed they had been fearful, and requested their posts back. Many were reinstated.

To this Donatus objected. Bishops, he claimed, had to be morally upright. Not merely were they obliged to me: a weak or sinful man by definition could not be a bishop. St Augustine, whose Confessions explored the nature of ongoing sin during a search for God, disagreed. The church, like the believer, is made perfect in the next life: weakness and corruption is a (unfortunate) part of being alive.

Along with this was an ongoing debate in the church, on the roles of the sacrament and preaching.

While the Donatists were defeated, the same trends would occur multiple times. By the end of the Dark Ages, the priesthood had degenerated into a largely illiterate family affair, where local parish priests would inherit the office from their father. Pope St. Gregory VII attacked this, including urging Christians not to attend masses said by priests living corrupt lives. While Gregory’s teachings were considered positive reforms, and not heresies, the trend of rejceting priests would continue.

Another major reaction-counterreaction were the preaching friar movements, especially the future heresiarch Peter Waldo and the future Saint Francis of Assisi. The two men died within twenty years of each other, and shared many similarities. Both were Italians from wealthy merchant families. Both had conversions of the heart after hearing the story of Jesus and the rich young man. Both gave away their possessions, and emphasized the importance of preaching the Gospel over the sacraments, both had followers who took this even farther, but both still emphasized the importance of sacraments.

That Waldo was declared a heretic, and Francis a saint, probably has more to do with the changing realization in the church that clerics and monks had been neglecting preaching (and perhaps to their personalities as well), as opposed to actual differences in their theology. For while followers of Waldo would deny purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead, it was Francis’s followers who occasionally would adopt a more extreme theology of an Age of the Holy Spirit, and that the era of obey’s Christ command to “do this in remembrance of me” had ended.

The power of the papacy itself was the site of a cycle. A weak but nonetheless highly literate Papacy was a seat of learning among the shattered remnants of the Roman Empire. The Pope often acted as Supreme Court, as feuding nobles or kings could assume the Pope both understood ancient laws and was far enough away to be able to judge honestly. Pope Innocent III would build the power of the papacy, successfully ending wars, even bringing both the Holy Roman Emperor and Byzantine Emperor to heel. But this increase in power of the Papacy, and increased its attraction for corrupt men, a new reaction formed to limit the power of the Papacy. This reaction was “Concilliarism,” the move to make councils (such as the Council of Nicea) a once-every-five years affair, a de facto legislature of the Christian world that would reduce the Pope to a sort of Prime Minister who could be removed. (Ironically, this may be closer to the sense in which Peter was himself made a Royal Steward, though this history does not make this connection). But this Concilliar move for constitutional reform would fail, both because a Council would cause immense trouble by electing an Anti-Pope, and because the now threatened Papacy rose to the occasion by successfully (if temporarily) negotiation Reunion with the Orthodox Church).

Another cycle was provoked by the Black Death, and the large number of loved ones suddenly taken away from this world. The ancient doctrine of prayers for the dead was put into focus by the mass deaths, which lead to mass inflation. The King of Spain paid for thousands upon thousands of masses for his soul, hoping the prayers of priests would lead God to grant him mercy. This could not be right, thought reformers, and so developed a theology focusing on merit (trying one’s best to do help others and serve God) to build a habit of grace. In the moments of us trying our best, we could obtain a salvation we did not deserve but which God promised us, and by repeating these we developed habits in which such service would (slowly, and almost) become second nature. Thus, salvation could be earned by faith through good works.

To which an Augustinian monk, named Martin Luther, would respond.

Medieval Christianity: A New History ends abruptly. The reformation is put in context, but the specific reasons why Luther’s attempted reforms ended in disaster, while all others kept a shared communion, are not discussed. Additionally, while the author teaches at Harvard Divinity School, his knowledge of Catholicism in particular seems lacking. He correctly tries to build empathy in the reader for the use of prayers to the saints, miracle medals, and the like, while either believing these are no longer practiced, or that no one who uses either would be reading his book. Likewise, the medieval time period is told almost entirely for western late medieval Christianity — the Dark  Ages are mostly elided, and the Orthodox and Eastern churches are all but forgotten

I listened to Medieval Christianity: A New History in the Audible edition.