Review of “The Everlasting Man,” by G.K. Chesterton

The other day I finished The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is often compared to C.S. Lewis, and of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is closest in tone to Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Indeed, I wonder if Lewis’ title is a play of Chesterton’s. For while Lewis considers what it would mean for man as a species to end, Chesterton concerns himself with a unique event in the history of man: the emergence of Christianity.

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

Chesterton admirably surveys eastern religions to argue for the universalism of the novelty of the New Testament. Here I think he succeeds. Hindus is a world of interweaving mythologies, not a moral system. Likewise, Buddhism or Confucianism are philosophies, but not religions. “Buddhism” is more religious than Confucianism,” but Chesterton emphasizes the Buddhist importance of letting go of attachments, and presents it as a personal philosophy that may be applicable regardless of the structure of the supernatural world. That is, a Buddhist who truly believed that everything was an illusion would also conclude that any fires of purgatory or fields of paradise were themselves part of a wheel of existence, a wheel that continues beyond mortal life. (Chesterton does not address “Salvation Vehicle” Buddhism, but would presumably argue that by adopting myth, it left behind philosophy.)

Several times Chesterton refers to the Jews as keeping the “Secret” of monotheism, and it is with the Jews that he could face the strongest counter-argument. Chesterton explicitly disregards Moses as a mythic figure because the Hebrew Bible repeatedly emphasizes that Moses was a man, not a divine being. Likewise, though Chesterton does not mention the Book of Job, I imagine he would exclude that Hebrew work because God only appears as a whirlwind, and Yamm and Leviathan only appear as allusions.

But it is in Genesis that the uniqueness of Christianity, with regards to Judaism, is most questionable. Because the LORD indeed walked the earth, he scolded Adam and Eve, he ate meat and drank milk with Abraham and Sarah. The strongest argument against that is that Genesis is speaking figuratively when it refers to the Divine on earth, while the New Testament speaks literally. But why should this be so? I suspect Chesterton is influenced by the mainline Jewish interpretation of Genesis, but the same devout critics who doubt God physically walked on Earth three-thousand years ago doubt He walked on earth two-thousand years ago, as well.

Even if you ultimately disagree with Chesterton, he’s well worth reading. He also contrasts events in such a way to give them a whole new dimension. The pagan god Ba’al is an old rival to the LORD among the Hebrews, of course, but it was the Grace of Ba’al who brought his elephants to trample the Romans. Both the Jews and the Romans were horrified at the sacrifice of children to the Phoenician gods. Of course, it would be the high priests and the civilian governor of those civilizations that would execute a greater sacrifice still.

I listened to The Everlasting Man on Audible.

The Book of Ezekiel

Angel attack!

The Book of Ezekiel is the most disturbing book of the Bible I read so far.

It begins grounded in reality, both the physical reality (where Ezekiel is among the captive elders of Israel) in the celestial reality (the Throne of God among the Angels). But the relentless power of heaven gives way to greater fury, and the destruction intensifies. Surrounding countries as well are condemned, the small and the great, until…

Well, it’s not clear until what. Nations of this world eventually fade into Gog and Magog, known geography transforms into something non-Euclidean. The other latter prophets end in ways that seem relatively normal — the promise of Salvation in Isaiah, the romantic comedy of Jeremiah, the despair of Lamentations.

Ezekiel appears to use the “distancing effect,” which is sometimes invoked in fiction to force the reader to confront a reality more real than what is on the stage, or the page. The other notable example of this in scripture is the Gospel of John, with its incantations of you… you… you… (The Gospel of John and the Revelation of John also gives us the only clue of what becomes of the threat posed by those Palm-like Angels. The Revelation also lets us say goodbye to Gog and Magog…)

The remainder of this post is me trying to grapple with these themes. I am aware I am missing much. For instance, the Threefold Office of Priest, Prophet, and King is held in part by Melchizedek (Priest and King), Saul (King and Prophet), and Ezekiel (Prophet and Priest). What is to be made of that?

Why can we identify with no one?

In the Old Religion of the Hieberu, the Stars were the celestial Department of Defense. Created by God the Father as part of the conquest of nothingness, they still served EL and bathed his enemies in fire. The stars fought for Jacob, and it was a star in human form that initiated this military-military alliance with the Israelites. We as humans see these hyperdimensional stars only in their dimensions that intersect our space-time, our “reality”: as the nuclear furnaces that light the night sky, as the military attache to the Twelve Tribes.

The Angels are the civilian counterparts to the Stars, the celestial State Department to the celestial Military. They include high-level diplomatic guards, messengers, and special operators. In our world the State Department subsumes the Central Intelligence Agency. In the Book of Ezekiel, the Angels conduct the greatest coup in the history of the world: the overthrow of the Kingdom of Israel, the desecration of the Temple, and the Babylonian Exile.

The Book of Isaiah made clear that Nebuchadnezzar is the LORD’s implement. The Book of Ezekiel shows how he used that asset: through his manipulative and murderous angels.

But first, before the wonder, the reality.

The King is in prison.
The priest is a captives.

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
Ezekiel 1:1

The End is now

An end has come,
The end has come;
It has dawned for you;
Behold, it has come!
Ezekiel 7:6

This isn’t the humorous divorce satire of Jeremiah. This is the nightmare of Lamentations.

Then He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the room of his idols? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.’”
Ezekiel 8:12

The Angels directly achieve the destruction of Jerusalem. It is directly ordered by the LORD

To the others He said in my hearing, “Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the temple. Then He said to them, “Defile the temple, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out!” And they went out and killed in the city.
Ezekial 9:5-7

The killing is done off-camera

Just then, the man clothed with linen, who had the inkhorn at his side, reported back and said, “I have done as You commanded me.”
Ezekiel 9:11

Our poor narrator, Ezekiel the Priest and Prophet, is alone with his thoughts

So it was, that while they were killing them, I was left alone; and I fell on my face and cried out, and said, “Ah, LORD God! Will You destroy all the remnant of Israel in pouring out Your fury on Jerusalem?”
Ezekiel 9:8

Some thoughts on the nature of God are appropriate here.

Ezekiel takes the creation stories that we see in Genesis and Job, and twists them with the legal satire from Jeremiah. The LORD says to Israel, to the reader:

“And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’
Ezekiel 16:6

The meaning may be the same as the famous Doxology

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
Deuteronomy 30:19

but the tone is surely different. This is not an exhortation. This is come across a wounded traveler, a foreigner, kicking in his blood, and being disgusted by death. This echoes not Moses’s exhortation to live, but a parable spoken later.

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.
Luke 10:30-33

Certainly a spiritually dead priesthood would be familiar to Ezekiel the Priest

Disaster will come upon disaster,
And rumor will be upon rumor.
Then they will seek a vision from a prophet;
But the law will perish from the priest,
And counsel from the elders.
Ezekiel 7:26

And this is the crux of it. The hardest article of faith to accept is that The Unhuman God is not an Inhuman God. The Book of Ezekiel, with its angelic attack on the daughters of Eve, dwells on this horror.

Against all of that, we only have this:

Yet you say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair?
Ezekiel 18:25

The truth of this statement is left as an exercise to the reader.

In the written Torah, God ate dinner with Abraham and his family. He spoke to Moses face-to-face, like a friend. In the New Testament, he is still a baby when he is seen by his mother, her spouse, and even the magi of Persia. He came eating and drinking, he ate dinners with Pharisees and with crowds.

But the LORD’s intention, in meeting face to face in the Book of Ezekiel, is not so friendly

“As I live,” says the LORD God, “surely with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, I will rule over you. I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead My case with you face to face.
Ezekiel 20:33-35

Everything Israel tries to limit this attack fails. The angels are too effective. The magic charms may work, but only increase the fury

“Likewise, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people, who prophesy out of their own heart; prophesy against them, and say, ‘Thus says the LORD God: “Woe to the women who sew magic charms on their sleeves and make veils for the heads of people of every height to hunt souls! Will you hunt the souls of My people, and keep yourselves alive? And will you profane Me among My people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, killing people who should not die, and keeping people alive who should not live, by your lying to My people who listen to lies?”

‘Therefore thus says the LORD God: “Behold, I am against your magic charms by which you hunt souls there like birds. I will tear them from your arms, and let the souls go, the souls you hunt like birds. I will also tear off your veils and deliver My people out of your hand, and they shall no longer be as prey in your hand. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.
Ezekiel 13:17-21

It is a measure of the despair of the Israelites that worship of Tammuz, the Living-and-Dying god, is taken up in the temple

And He said to me, “Turn again, and you will see greater abominations that they are doing.” So He brought me to the door of the north gate of the Lord’s house; and to my dismay, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz.
Ezekial 8:13-14

Tammuz cannot even save himself, spending half of each year in the underworld. To these women he was their best hope. A hope against Whom?

The Angel attack is comprehensive. It includes a specops disinfo campaign, in which the spirits the King of Babylon intends to communicate with are intercepted, and messages detrimental to Israel are inserted into the channel

The word of the LORD came to me again, saying:

“And son of man, appoint for yourself two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to go; both of them shall go from the same land. Make a sign; put it at the head of the road to the city. Appoint a road for the sword to go to Rabbah of the Ammonites, and to Judah, into fortified Jerusalem.

For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the road, at the fork of the two roads, to use divination: he shakes the arrows, he consults the images, he looks at the liver. In his right hand is the divination for Jerusalem: to set up battering rams, to call for a slaughter, to lift the voice with shouting, to set battering rams against the gates, to heap up a siege mound, and to build a wall.

And it will be to them like a false divination in the eyes of those who have sworn oaths with them; but he will bring their iniquity to remembrance, that they may be taken.
Ezekiel 21:18-23

The Angelic weapons are made of fire

Then it happened, when He commanded the man clothed in linen, saying, “Take fire from among the wheels, from among the cherubim,” that he went in and stood beside the wheels. And the cherub stretched out his hand from among the cherubim to the fire that was among the cherubim, and took some of it and put it into the hands of the man clothed with linen, who took it and went out. The cherubim appeared to have the form of a man’s hand under their wings.
Ezekiel 10:6

Angels are gigantic. What fits in their hands is large enough to destroy a nation

I will pour out My indignation on you;
I will blow against you with the fire of My wrath,
And deliver you into the hands of brutal men who are skillful to destroy.
You shall be fuel for the fire;
Your blood shall be in the midst of the land.
You shall not be remembered,
For I the Lord have spoken.’”
Ezekiel 21:31-32

And then, more terribly

“Woe to the bloody city!
I too will make the pyre great.
Heap on the wood,
Kindle the fire;
Cook the meat well,
Mix in the spices,
And let the cuts be burned up.
“Then set the pot empty on the coals,
That it may become hot and its bronze may burn,
That its filthiness may be melted in it,
That its scum may be consumed.
Ezekiel 24:10-11

And then, most terribly

“Son of man, behold, I take away from you the desire of your eyes with one stroke; yet you shall neither mourn nor weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh in silence, make no mourning for the dead; bind your turban on your head, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your lips, and do not eat man’s bread of sorrow.”

So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded.
Ezekiel 24:16-18

Let us step back for a second from the hell angels have brought to our world.

We can take a break, and laugh at a lewd joke

Elders of Gebal and its wise men
Were in you to caulk your seams;
All the ships of the sea
And their oarsmen were in you
To market your merchandise.
Ezekiel 27:9

The joke, written with the use of “in” to fly over the heads of children, is part of a litany against the nations, similar to Isaiah’s letter. In a few short lines Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Phlistia are condoned too. Tyre, the merchant city, comes up for castigating. Except there’s these… glitches.

“All who handle the oar,
The mariners,
All the pilots of the sea
Will come down from their ships and stand on the shore.
Ezekial 27:29

Another would stand by the shore of the sea….

And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

He stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
Revelation 12:17-13:1

And later, the Threefold Identification — that some lands, some angels, and some demons:

“You were the seal of perfection,
Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

You were in Eden, the garden of God;
Every precious stone was your covering:
The sardius, topaz, and diamond,
Beryl, onyx, and jasper,
Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold.
The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes
Was prepared for you on the day you were created.

“You were the anointed cherub who covers;
I established you;
You were on the holy mountain of God;
You walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones.

You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created,
Till iniquity was found in you.

“By the abundance of your trading
You became filled with violence within,
And you sinned;
Therefore I cast you as a profane thing
Out of the mountain of God;
And I destroyed you, O covering cherub,
From the midst of the fiery stones.
Ezekiel 28:13-16

After this the worldly litany continues.  Sidon is condemned.  Egypt is condemned.  The Pharaohs will see his soldiers in the deep.  The monsters are at work.

Yet, maybe there is hope? God will save the people. David will be a prince in the royal house once more

Therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:22-24

The imagery almost- — briefly — matches that of the romantic comedy in Jeremiah

Therefore thus says the LORD God: “I have raised My hand in an oath that surely the nations that are around you shall bear their own shame. But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are about to come. For indeed I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt. 11 I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and better for you than at your beginnings. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.
Ezekiel 36:7-11

And then, not eros, but thanos — not romantic love, but dead bones:

Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord
Ezekiel 37:4

Yet the dead shall come back

Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves.
Ezekiel 37:12-13

It feels like the ending, a glorious and wonderful promise.

Even the Royal Line of David will return!

“David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them. Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people. The nations also will know that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”’”
Ezekiel 37:24-28

But what to make of these new enemies, not the Amalekites or the Sidonians, but lands never heard of on this world, Gog and Magog?

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal.
Ezekiel 38:1-3

The wars exceed any known historical massacres, and are all against all

I will call for a sword against Gog throughout all My mountains,” says the LORD God. “Every man’s sword will be against his brother. And I will bring him to judgment with pestilence and bloodshed; I will rain down on him, on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, flooding rain, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone.
Ezekiel 38:21-22

The substance of the angels — fire — directly consumes the weapons of men

“Then those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and bucklers, the bows and arrows, the javelins and spears; and they will make fires with them for seven years. They will not take wood from the field nor cut down any from the forests, because they will make fires with the weapons; and they will plunder those who plundered them, and pillage those who pillaged them,” says the LORD God.
Ezekiel 39:9-10

And once more, we may look upon God face to face… like a friend

then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the LORD God.”
Ezekial 39:28-29

The world — the prism through which we see reality at least — is now changed. The Temple somehow is back. Carved with angels and trees

And it was made with cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Each cherub had two faces, so that the face of a man was toward a palm tree on one side, and the face of a young lion toward a palm tree on the other side; thus it was made throughout the temple all around. From the floor to the space above the door, and on the wall of the sanctuary, cherubim and palm trees were carved.
Ezekiel 41:18-20

the stuff of nightmares in our world

With alters, two for three, somehow the numbers do not quite make sense

In the vestibule of the gateway were two tables on this side and two tables on that side, on which to slay
the burnt offering,
the sin offering, and
the trespass offering.
Ezekiel 40:39

In the old days of the Kingdom the bodies of the Kings would be on the hills outside Jerusalem, such as the Place of the Skull

And He said to me, “Son of man, this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. No more shall the house of Israel defile My holy name, they nor their kings, by their harlotry or with the carcasses of their kings on their high places
Ezekiel 43:7

In the old days of the Kingdom the bodies of young bulls would be in the Temple inside Jerusalem, on Mount Zion

You shall give a young bull for a sin offering to the priests, the Levites, who are of the seed of Zadok, who approach Me to minister to Me,’ says the LORD God.
Ezekiel 43:19

In the new days, every day, the lamb will be made present, the bread is made present, the Holy Oil will be made present, as a sacrifice fo the LORD

“You shall daily make a burnt offering to the Lord of a lamb of the first year without blemish; you shall prepare it every morning. And you shall prepare a grain offering with it every morning, a sixth of an ephah, and a third of a hin of oil to moisten the fine flour. This grain offering is a perpetual ordinance, to be made regularly to the LORD. Thus they shall prepare the lamb, the grain offering, and the oil, as a regular burnt offering every morning.”
Ezekiel 46:-13-15

The Hebrews were shepherds and agriculturalists.  Kings and Warriors.  Yet in this depiction of the impossible and the incredible, the Kings and Alters and Sacrifices, a bizarre promise to a marginal population, that fishermen will be successful.

Why is this the penultimate promise?

And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many.
Ezekial 47:9-10

Why are the stripes of the land, the lashes of Israel, the ultimate promise?

“Now these are the names of the tribes: From the northern border along the road to Hethlon at the entrance of Hamath, to Hazar Enan, the border of Damascus northward, in the direction of Hamath, there shall be one section for Dan from its east to its west side; by the border of Dan, from the east side to the west, one section for Asher; by the border of Asher, from the east side to the west, one section for Naphtali
Ezekial 48:1-3

(etc.)

What does God mean by any of this?

A last thought. One of the images above comes form the animated television show, Neon Genesis Evangelion (“The Gospel of a New Beginning.”) Evangelion and Ezekiel share a conceit of an angelic attack on the world, inexplicable destruction, sacrifice, and a style of writing sometimes known as “Epic” or “Brechtian.”

Both end in ways that make the ‘plot’ fade into meaningless. The everyday nations of Ammon and Egypt fade into Gog and Magog, as any semblance of a sane geography leaves to a river flowing from Zion and an Israel divided into twelve equal stripes. Similarly, the angelic monsters and human headquarters in Evangelion somehow fade into an infinite plane and a mysterious railroad car.

The reason for this form of writing, what Bertolt Brecht called the “distancing effect,” is to separate the audience from the main story. The main story is not your story. The purpose is not an emotional catharsis, but a change in the audience. The goal is reflection. When we read of Gog and Magog, when we see the infinite plane, or the railroad car, the point is to emphasize the passingness of the ‘main plot’ but the enduring, and perhaps corrupted, experience of the audience.

The reaction to Brechtian art, rather Evangelion or The Chinese or other such works, is often anger.  A story without a sensible catharsis is not fair, says the audience.  The director’s response is often a variation of, “it is the audience that is not fair!”

Reality itself is epic. And Ezekiel distances. The impossible ending, the reader’s infinite distance to the Sacrifice and the Priests, the Bull and carcass of the King, break our reality itself. The ending, Israel lashed and fishermen with large nets, barely makes sense (unless you read ahead).

It is the next time man meets the LORD, face to face, like a friend, that the palms are broken

The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:

“Hosanna!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’[d]
The King of Israel!”
John 12:12-13

And in the end that is after all the ends of Ezekiel, all the ends of time, the stripes of Israel, the broken palms, God and His Lamb, are given to us together


of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed.

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation 7:8-10

Review of “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,” by Jaquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

To paraphrase a wise man ,Failure is a GPS: it tells you the distance between where you are and where you want to be. Previous failure I’ve read about — Bell Labs and Alcatel-Lucent — have been reborn in the form of Nokia. And success makes one fat and lazy. General Motors, the Google of its day, is a warning to anyone facing a lifetime of victories.

It is with this context that I read Losing the Signal: The Untold Story of the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry. Formerly named “Research in Motion,” the company made a portable paging and email device that created text-based communication on the go. It dominated the era of before phones and PDAs converged, dominating relatively niche players like US Robotics‘ “Palm” product and Microsoft’s PocketPC.

The end came quick — so quickly the story almost seems out of order. The world of battery-saving, highly secure, data-efficient devices was nuked from space by the Apple iPhone launch. Unlike Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who famously laughed the device off, co-CEO Mike Lazarids had personally disassembled an early iPhone and understood the qualitative difference between it and any other machine on the market.

The reason is that until the bitter end — until Blackberry abandoned what it once was and hopped first to QNX and then Android — it was a better phone. At least for the core scenarios that once dominated the market: long lasting battery, low data usage, high security. For developing countries with poor infrastructure these were required. Thus, the collapse of Research in Motion / Blackberry as a global enterprise was masked for a while by phenomenal success in large, developing countries.

Authors McNish and Silcoff weave this corporate history in with tales of the co-CEOs who once lead Research in Motion: Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. The “sales guy” and “engineering guy” respectively, the team behind the company’s explosive growth. For a book that seems to have had tremendous access to these two men, the portraits of them are not flattering. Balsillie seems like a bully and near-con, whose creaed hostile relationships with both suppliers and carriers that contributed to the company’s swift collapse. Lazaridis, by all accounts an excellent hardware engineer, had limited understand of software even years after overseeing the development of Blackberry’s OS, and bizarrely attempted to rewrite the entire software stack on QNX that had never worked in mobile before.

A last point, but an important one: the story of Blackberry intersects at several moments with the University of Waterloo, a large research university located nearby. During the Second World War, the university instituted an a repeating cycle of classes and outside work for students, initially to help with the war effort but rapidly used to bootstrap an educated engineering work force. It’s a great educational model, and one I wish Blackberry could have helped spread to the United States.

I listened to Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry on unabridged audible.

Lamentations

I broke from my tradition and read the Wikipedia article for Lamentations (Hebrew: “How”) before writing down my thoughts. The reason is that I recall somewhere the phrase “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” and I wondered if that meant lamentations shared the same author as Jeremiah. The scholarly consensus seems to be “no,” and I (with no knowledge in Hebrew, and paying attention in an amateurish way to the genre and writing style) agree.

It’s clear that either the author of Lamentations read The Book of Jeremiah, or knew of him, or (alternatively) the author of Jeremiah read Lamentations. They use much of the same symbolism. They also have the same focal point: the sack of Jerusalem and desecration of the Temple by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. But the tone is completely different. Jeremiah begins as a legal satire, anyone who has seen Intolerable Cruelty (starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones) or other parodies of divorce immediately gets that what follows in Jeremiah is a romantic comedy. And the feuds, betrayals, and anger of that comedy does not detract from it, but gives meaning to it.

Lamentations is not a rom-com. It’s a rape.

The adversary has spread his hand
Over all her pleasant things
For she has seen the nations
enter her sanctuary
Those whom You commanded
Not to enter Your assembly
Lamentations 1:10

The prayer is not to silence. The prayer is to a LORD who has switched sides

He has done violence to His tabernacle
As if it were a garden
He has destroyed His place of assembly
The LORD has caused
The appointed feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion
In His burning indignation He
has spurned the king and the priest.
Lamentations 2:6

There’s no reunion here. The LORD’s attack is not just general, but specific. Not just to the nation, not just to others, but the author himself

He has aged my flesh and my skin,
And broken my bones…
He has set me in dark places
Like the dead of long ago
Lamentations 3:4,6

There is no happy ending. There is no reminder a king still lives, or a priest is far off. Just destruction. Silence

Why do You forget us forever,
And forsake us for so long a time?

Turn us back to You, or LORD, and we will be restored;
Renew our days as of old

Unless You have utterly rejected us
And are very angry with us!
Lamentations 5:20-22

In another post, The Good Bull, I wrote that the central dilemma of Christianity was whether God the Father was inhuman, or merely unhuman. We can rationalize history as a comedy, or a love story.  But what of those who die who are tortured, who lose hope?

We see echos, themes, that may one day pay off.

Centuries too late the author of Lamentations.

Echoes such as this

Let him give his check to the one who strikes him
And be full of reproach
For the Lord will not cast off forever
Though He causes grief
Yet He will show compassion
According to the multitudes of His mercies
Lamentations 3:30-31

to that.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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 5:38-42

This.

The precious sons of Zion
Valuable as fine gold
How they are regarded as clay pots
The work of the hands of the potter!
Lamentations 4:2

To that.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
Romans 9:19-21

This.

Because of the sins of her prophets
And the iniquities of her priests
Who shed in her midst
The blood of the just
Lamentations 4:12

To that.

Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”

Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”

But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”
Matthew 27:22-23

This.

See, OR LORD, and consider!
To Whom have You done this?
Should the women eat their offspring,
the children they have cuddled?
Should the priest and the prophet be slain
In the sanctuary of the Lord?
Lamentations 2:20

To that.

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
Matthew 26:26-29


In Lamentations we see the work of God the Father, the Unseen God, the unspeakable furnace that created the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the foolish kings, the false prophets, and the lying priests.

Review of “The Abolition of Man,” by C.S. Lewis

I recently read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Thematically it is a cross between That Hideous Strength (1945), which I read more than a decade ago, and Mere Christianity (1952), which I read earlier this year. It’s also the closest C.S. Lewis comes to a “natural” philosophy, and at times intentionally recycles language of the non-theist Chinese philosophies.

cs-lewis-the-abolition-of-man

The Abolition of Man begins with a review of an book on English grammar and literature. At first I groaned, and worried I stumbled across some British English “inside baseball” professional dispute from half a century ago. But quickly Lewis begins an attack that Robert Pirsig would continue decades later in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): objects have Qualities that give them Arete/Rta/virtue/righteousness (note the Indo-European element “Rt” in all four words).

zenmotorcycle

We all believe this of at least some objects, though to one person the object in question may be material (this holy relic), while to another an object may be disembodied (the value of equality). Words such as “just” (it’s just a piece of wood), or “only” (it’s only the skew of income in a society) are pejoratives without substance. When those pejoratives are used the speaker is making a value judgement on which ideas are Right and which are not.

Lewis argues that behind such judgments are one of two philosophies: the “Tao” (called in Mere Christianity, natural law) or the Conquest of Nature. The natural law comer from evaluation the moral sense as exactly that, a sense, of a physical property of the world just as real as sight, or sound, or smell. In the same way that light is not “just” electromagnetic radiation, but rather is made of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation on our cortical nerves, the moral sense is not “only” our conscience, but is detected through our conscience. (This is similar to the description of the Objective Room in That Hideous Strength.)

Against this natural sense — truly against it, in the manner that tectonic plates are against each other — is the Conquest of Nature. Such an alternative foundation of morality seeks to liberate “Man” from nature, by controlling and constraining the moral sense. Lewis explicitly cites Nietzche as an example of such a philosophy, but an even better example would be B.F. Skinners’ Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which (with its focus on education and motivation) must have seen like a satantic prophecy come true.

skinner-beyond-freedom-and-dignity

Lewis refers to those able to control the deconstruct and reconstruct the moral sense in this way as Motivators. Such Motivators may appear to be highly skilled technician, the originators of the Hygiene movement in Mere Christianity (1952). But the end result is the same: a generation free from the past generations and their natural law, but ruling the future with its ability to create its own law.

cs-lewis-that-hideous-strength

It is this breakthrough — this ability to arbitrarily control the moral sense — that Lewis refers to as the “Abolition of Man.” Whatever the earliest abolitionists may believe, and whatever their motives, those that come after them are not “men” at all for they have no access to the Natural Law that all earlier humans shared. The Motivators, the abolitionists, would have freed men from the Natural Law in that future “men” would never know it. But, because it is by natural forces any such new arbitrary moral sense is installed, such an Abolition would also reduce homo sapiens to slaves of nature.

The conquest of Nature would, itself, be the surrender to Nature.

I listened to The Abolition of Man on unabridged audible.

The Book of Jeremiah

The Book of Jeremiah has the best writing in the Hebrew Bible. Job, Ruth, Genesis, and Psalms are all stylistically referenced, and the arc of history extends from the Patriarchs to the Exodus to the earthly kingdom.

And it’s funny.

In the Hebrew Bible, comedy works by establishing a pattern and unexpectedly reversing it. When Jacob’s sons are worried about their fate under Pharaoh’s vizier (actually their brother, Joshua), the hapless brothers relates the increasingly cruel tricks the Egyptians may have planned:

Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house. They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to

attack us and
overpower us and
seize us as slaves and
take our donkeys.”
Genesis 43:18

joseph-brothers-donkeys

This formula works in longer narratives too. The story of dull-headed Judah and Tamar has all the makings of a Shakespearean comedy: Tamar has been working as a prostitute, and had her unknowing father-in-law, Judah, as a client. Now she’s pregnant, and Judah ordered her execution:

And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.”

So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”
Genesis 38:24

But Tamar had wisely taken Judah’s seal and staff as security… and had hidden herself before Judah could present payment, meaning she still had the security though the debt was unpaid. So she is able to prove the identity of the other guilty party, the man who ordered her incineration!

When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are—the signet and cord, and staff.”
Genesis 38:25

In Shakespeare’s tragedy the king would now kill himself, and everyone would die. But Judah comically realizes the truth: Tamar is guilty, but Judah is not only guilty but — because had not paid Tamar, and had not arranged a replacement marriage —  Judah is also in debt to her!

So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.
Genesis 38:26

judah_and_tamar

The Book of Jeremiah is comedy, but a dark and subversive one. Jeremiah Biblical genre on its head in striking and unexpected ways. And as all comedies end happily ever after, with a marriage and shouts, so this comedy does this book. These comic surprises in Jeremiah occur on multiple levels — even to the type of story that it tells.

The author of Jeremiah enjoys zingers, the same set-up leading to an unexpected outcome, from the downright funny

“Therefore you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:

“Drink,
be drunk, and
vomit!

Fall and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you.
Jeremiah 25:27

… to the Lovecraftian

Do you not see what they do in

the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?

The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for

the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger.
Jeremiah 7:17-18

queen-of-heaven

Even the narrative portions of Jeremiah use this formula, with a cozy scene turned into high blasphemy by a Son of David himself:

So the king sent Jehudi to bring the scroll, and he took it from Elishama the scribe’s chamber. And Jehudi read it in the hearing of the king and in the hearing of all the princes who stood beside the king. Now

the king was sitting in the winter house in the ninth month,
with a fire burning
on the hearth before him.

And it happened, when
Jehudi had read three or four columns, that
the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and
cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until
all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth.
Jeremiah 36:21-23

17_Weigel Engraving _scrolls burnt 36 Emory Pitts Theology archivs Book Title: Biblia ectypa : Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments Author: Weigel, Christoph. Image Title: Jehoiakim Burns the Scroll Scripture Reference: Jeremiah 36 Description: Jehoiakim burns the Jeremiah scroll.

This same pattern — an expected pattern twisted in an unexpected way – survives in even broader constructions. In the wilderness, the LORD spoke to Moses “face to face, like a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The tragic King of Judah, Zedekiah, is likewise promised such a meeting with a foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. For then the king of Babylon’s army besieged Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the prison, which was in the king of Judah’s house. For Zedekiah king of Judah had shut him up, saying, “Why do you prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; and Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape from the hand of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face, and see him eye to eye; then he shall lead Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall be until I visit him,” says the LORD; “though you fight with the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed”’?”
Jeremiah 32:1-5

The meeting, “face to face” and “eye to eye” is again promised, but with an additional prophesy: Zedekiah will not die by violence

And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.’”’ Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword.’
Jeremiah 34:3-4

Instead, Zedekiah’s fate is unspeakably worse:

But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and they overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. All his army was scattered from him. So they took the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath, and he pronounced judgment on him. Then the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. And he killed all the princes of Judah in Riblah. He also put out the eyes of Zedekiah; and the king of Babylon bound him in bronze fetters, took him to Babylon, and put him in prison till the day of his death.
Jeremiah 52:8-11

zedekiah-and-nebuchadnezzar

But in the end, Jeremiah is a comedy in the broadest sense. The Book begins with a lawsuit, God petitioning a cosmic court for divorce from Judah, including a request to be freed from any child support

“Therefore I will yet bring charges against you,” says the Lord,
“And against your children’s children I will bring charges.
Jeremiah 2:9

The nation of Jacob has been not just idolatrous, but foolish, worshiping the work of human hands

I will utter My judgments
Against them concerning all their wickedness,
Because they have forsaken Me,
Burned incense to other gods,
And worshiped the works of their own hands.
Jeremiah 1:16

All of Israel – the holy offices of Priest, Prophet, and King — is corrupted. The corruption of the people themselves is emphasized twice, twofold each time, at the beginning and the end of the litany

Because of

all the evil of the children of Israel and
the children of Judah,

which

they have done to provoke Me to anger—
they,
their kings,
their princes,
their priests,
their prophets,

the men of Judah, and
the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah 32:32

Even foreigners can see the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of God’s judgment

And the captain of the guard took Jeremiah and said to him: “The LORD your God has pronounced this doom on this place. Now the LORD has brought it, and has done just as He said. Because you people have sinned against the LORD, and not obeyed His voice, therefore this thing has come upon you.
Jeremiah 40:2-3

Jerusalem is itself destroyed, but the LORD’s presence in the temple is worse than lost — God Himself has ordained the destruction! Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of the Temple, blinder of the king, is himself God’s servant!

“Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and

Nebuchadnezzar
the king of Babylon,
My servant,

and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.
Jeremiah 25:8-9

x1952-367, The Chaldees Destroy the Brazen Sea, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

But even in this is comedy. The hyperbolic lawsuit hints it is a legal satire

“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.
Jeremiah 3:2

But God still loves Israel

“Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD:
“I remember you,
The kindness of your youth,
The love of your betrothal,
When you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown.
Jeremiah 2:2

Indeed, God remembers even the smallest child

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
Before you were born I sanctified you;
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 1:5

And remembers the House of David. A future King will come.

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.

In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS
Jeremiah 23:5-6

For the tree of Jesse is not dead, but rather a shoot still grows, a Jew among the gentiles.

Now it came to pass in the thirty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, that Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the first year of his reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a more prominent seat than those of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin changed from his prison garments, and he ate bread regularly before the king all the days of his life. And as for his provisions, there was a regular ration given him by the king of Babylon, a portion for each day until the day of his death, all the days of his life
Jeremiah 52:31-34

jehoiachin-in-babylon

And then we see. The Book of Jeremiah is a comedy, a romantic comedy, and like any romcom it needs a reunion and gifts and renewed vows

“Return, O backsliding children,” says the LORD; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Jeremiah 3:14

As in that other romantic comedy, the Book of Ruth, the story of David’s great-grandmother:

“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Ruth 1:16

1_6-1_ruth_ruth_and_naomi_gleaning_in_the_fields

So in the Book of Jeremiah:

‘You shall be My people,
And I will be your God.’
Jeremiah 30:22

The Book of Jeremiah is the romantic comedy, the love story, of God and nation of Israel. Their quarrels and jealous do not erase that love. They are part of the passion that can only come from that love.

Review of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made,” by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas

The Wise Men is the massive professional biography of Jack McCloy, Chuck Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Bob Lovett, George Kennan, and Averell Harriman. Written largely as a series of episodes revolving around the Groton School, Yale University, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the book tells the story of the old American foreign police elite, and has relevant for current trends.

the-wise-men-isaacson-thomas

The history presented is detailed, ponderous, and heavily implies access to the personal journals of either these men, or of those around them. In the same way that Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs appeared to rely on personal access while not simply repeated what was said before, The Wise Men provided much more depth for the American foreign policy elite than I had before. I’ve read much more on the Chinese polite elite — Jie Chauzhu, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Chiang Kai-shek, and so on, and The Wise Men gives me a frame to drape knowledge of elite events on the eastern side of the Pacific in that period.

Chiang_Kai_Shek_and_wife_with_Lieutenant_General_Stilwell

Which would bring me to a first criticism. Both the characters and the authors go out of their way to dismiss the Asian theater, both in the Second World War and the Cold War. China is viewed as a distracting, “land war in Asia” is an insult never given context, and it’s clear the wars in Asia are most regrettable because they placed US foreign policy on a backwards and irrelevant continent. “Republicans” and “isolationists” (always so called) who wanted to focus US foreign policy on protecting Asia from communism are the most two-dimensional characters in the book. At times this Eurocentric focus is plainly stated, but its never explained or contextualized beyond the superficial level.

It’s hard for me to understand these “Wise Men,” because their faults do not fit into neat categories. In many ways they are White Protestant nationalists, they look down on Jews and Catholics and Asians in equal order. McCloy in particular has a horrific involvement with the survival of the death camps in Germany and the construction of the internment camps in the U.S., and Harriman and the rest do not lose sleep over the crushing of central Europe or Asia. But this ethnocentrism does not seem to extend to any policy recommendations for the suppression of non White Protestant populations within the United States. Perhaps a comparison might be made of the Roman Senatorial elite, a small Italian nobility that magnanimously ruled over subject populations from the Iberians to the Jews. I don’t know, and this likewise is not explored.

slavery-in-ancient-rome

The final chapter of the book, “The Last Supper of the Wise Men,” tries to shoehorn an elegy for the old foreign policy elite. It falls flat (not the least because the combined efforts of the disdained Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administration would win the cold war months after the book was published!). But there’s something to this. Isaacson and Thomas note that even the “poorest” of the wise men had second homes and personal servants. Some of this is a function of the economic development of the time. But as well, The Wise Men is the story of an elite being swept away, as an elite is being swept away in our times.

churchill-harriman-and-stalin

I write this in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. The last three years have seen three elite failures in the west: the gamergate revolt in hobbyist journalism, the Brexit polling debacle, the Republican primary prediction debacle, and the general election polling debacle. These are the results of the economic collapse of the old media elite, which had lead to hiring and publication decisions which encourage low-skill analysts and click-bait headlines.

The Wise Men describes a different elite — foreign policy instead of journalism — but at the dawn of the professional class. Men like Harriman had no need for income from their work. Instead, power was a hobby, for those rich enough to afford it. We are entering that world again — the Washington Post is a hobby of Amazon-founded Jeff Bezos, and for a time The New Republic was the toy of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. If these men allow their children to inherit vast wealth, the world of that generation will be the world of Averell Harriman.

It’s hard to recommend The Wise Men because it is a very slow read — It took me 14 months to muscle through it on unabridged Audible. But it’s a fascinating look at a world that once was, and may be again.

Impressions of “Reflections on the Psalms,” by C.S. Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to listen to C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms, on unabridged Audible. Unlike his more famous works it is not a apolgetic — Lewis is writing to the interested layman, Christian or not, about the Hebrew psalms and how they relate to Christianity.

reflections-on-the-psalms

Lewis’s preferred rendering closely mirrors Robert Alter’s translation, The Book fof Psalms, and disagree with the style followed by Dumbrell and Lozovyy. When it comes to the Psalms, the “literal” translation is preferred among the academically minded, and a loose translation is preferred by would-be theocrats. It’s easy to see why. The Psalms are written in a down-to-earth style: the Hebrew word ruach sometimes translated as “spirit” means life-breath (the in-flow to the lungs), and words used to describe redemption clearly refer to civil suits. While what Lewis calls “double meanings” (and what Alter would call “Christian hermeneutics“) can be easily applied to some verses, there seems to be no serious academic dispute as to the original, intended meanings of many of the Psalms.

In my review of Alter’s work, I noted many have the style of hip-hop: self-congratulatory poems praising one’s own virtues and cursing adversaries. I don’t think there’s a way to resolve this without admitting that the words of the Scripture itself reflect the human biases and faults of the human author. To this Lewis and I would add that the Holy Author has a clear intention in doing this. An analogy might be found int he list of Popes. Christ chose as the first Pope a man who cut off an ear in the Garden and denied him three times during his trial. God uses human instruments to reveal Himself to us. Perhaps because we could not withstand a clearer revelation.

the-book-of-psalms

Lewis also makes some worthwhile observations about prophecy. Lewis gives the example of a scientist of the oceans, describing in a lecture what an alien fish on a planet with such-and-such conditions may look like. If later a space probe is sent to a world similar to one described, and takes photos of alien fish similar to that described by the scientist, is the scientist is a prophet? In a literary sense, yes: he accurately understood the mechanics of what was happening, and made a prediction in line with that. Other ‘prophecies’ by the same scientist should be taken more seriously as a result.

This point is important. For while there are prophecies that are filled-full by events, and those which are clearly written after events, the Scriptures even record prophets who hide their thoughts, or are scared of political power, or who disagree with other prophets

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go against Ramoth Gilead to fight, or shall I refrain?”

So they said, “Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king.”…

Then he came to the king; and the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?”

And he answered him, “Go and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!”

So the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”

Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’”
1 Kings 22:6,15-17

Thus, prophecies are part of the internal dialog of the Scripture. Another aspect of this internal dialog are where different human writers seem to disagree with each other. An interesting chain, albeit partially out of order, concerns the books Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, and Isaiah.

Ecclesiastes, if it is to be literally believed, was written by Solomon

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Solomon, though, allowed worship in the “high places”

And Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.
1 Kings 3:3

Which were destroyed by Hezekiah

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done.

He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:1-4

Which may not have been such a good thing after all

Look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.

“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’?”’
Isaiah 26:6-7

Knowledge of these internal dialogues become necessary to sustaining the faith when one reads the Psalms. Lewis begins his reflections on the Psalms near where I end it, with the terrible ones.

Let his days be few,
And let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow.

Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg;
Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.

Let the creditor seize all that he has,
And let strangers plunder his labor.

Let there be none to extend mercy to him,
Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Psalms 109:8-12

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These terrible Psalms too are part of the Scripture’s internal dialog. And this internal dialog reaches its climax in the hallucinatory four-way testimony of the Gospels — of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in which the human ability to understand the Divine only by stripes is most apparent.

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
Luke 14:25-26

and

Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
Matthew 19:13-15

I’m glad I read Reflections on the Psalms. It’s a brief book more accessible to general readers than Alter’s Book of Psalms. It is a much more human in understanding the flesh and blood writers than most “religious readers.” It has some fascinating thoughts on prophecy and the dialog of the Bible.

And it’s short! Only three and a half hours. Highly recommended!

The Book of Isaiah

Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you.’
Isaiah 36:14

In the Old Religion of the Habiru — of the Hebrews before the conquest of Israel — God is a cosmic Emperor, judging the lesser gods and sending his messengers throughout the world. The Psalmist puts it this way:

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.
Psalms 82:1

His officer corps are the things of nightmares — the fusion reactors of the stars

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist’s impression.

From the heavens, the stars fought
From their stations, they fought with Sisera
Judges 5:20

And his attendants, nightmares themselves, the biological seraphim

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In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”

And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
Isaiah 6:-4

And the mechanical cherubim:

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O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth.
Isaiah 37:16

This God — this deep, unhuman divinity is created the world, as described in Genesis and Job. He is the King of Kings. He judges the nations. And He will send a Savior, who will redeem Creation through His stripes.

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The Book of Isaiah pointedly compares Hezekiah, King of Judah, and Cyrus, Emperor of Persia.

At first glance the comparison is ridiculous. Hezekiah is the king who finally smashed the high places, as the Books of Kings and Chronicles called for again and again. And Cyrus is not even Jewish, and blasphemes by calling himself “King of Kings.”

But, perhaps they are both judged. Certainly the destruction of the High Places may not have appeared, at least, to be especially virtuous to those who heard of it

Look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.

“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’?”’
Isaiah 26:6-7

Likewise, after foolishly showing his treasures to the Babylonian and thus guaranteeing the destruction of his kingdom, Hezekiah’s reaction is rather shocking…

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the LORD. ‘And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’”

So Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good!” For he said, “At least there will be peace and truth in my days.”
Isaiah 39:5-8

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While in time, Cyrus the “king of kings” is the instrument of the true King of Kings

Thus says the LORD to His anointed,
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held

To subdue nations before him
And loose the armor of kings,
To open before him the double doors,
So that the gates will not be shut:

‘I will go before you
And make the crooked places straight;
I will break in pieces the gates of bronze
And cut the bars of iron.
Isaiah 45:1-2

Not only are Jewish kings compared to non-Jewish ones, even the nations are compared on equal terms. True, while the LORD is not happy with far off Ethiopia…

Woe to the land shadowed with buzzing wings,
Which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,

Which sends ambassadors by sea,
Even in vessels of reed on the waters, saying,
“Go, swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth of skin,
To a people terrible from their beginning onward,
A nation powerful and treading down,
Whose land the rivers divide.”
Isaiah 18:1-2

… Nor is he with the City of David, where He dwells within His tabernacle!

But the word of the LORD was to them,
“Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
Line upon line, line upon line,
Here a little, there a little,”
That they might go and fall backward, and be broken
And snared and caught.

Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men,
Who rule this people who are in Jerusalem…”
Isaiah 28:13-14

Indeed, even the non-human is cursed with the human.

The earth mourns and fades away,
The world languishes and fades away;
The haughty people of the earth languish.
Isaiah 24:-4

And even the animals await their salvation

The beast of the field will honor Me,
The jackals and the ostriches,
Because I give waters in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert,
To give drink to My people, My chosen.
This people I have formed for Myself;
They shall declare My praise.
Isaiah 43:20-21

Indeed, for while God loves his trees, the product of human hands on trees is somehow despised

In that day a man will look to his Maker,
And his eyes will have respect for the Holy One of Israel.
He will not look to the altars,
The work of his hands;
He will not respect what his fingers have made,
Nor the wooden images nor the incense altars.
Isaiah 17:7-8

Trees may be for benefit of men, but their lives are too precious to teh chopped down to make idols, or to besiege a city

When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man’s food. Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20

What could God be thinking?

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9

But what of poor Israel? What of the City of David, King of Israel? What of David’s own sons, the descendants of his father Jesse?

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But Let’s step back. Remember the LORD walked the earth. He ate steak and drank milk with his friend Abraham. He won’t forget that.

“But you, Israel, are My servant,
Jacob whom I have chosen,
The descendants of Abraham My friend.

You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth,
And called from its farthest regions,
And said to you,
‘You are My servant,
I have chosen you and have not cast you away:
Isaiah 41:8-9

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God will never forget this friendship to Abraham. It is more solid than the earth, more vast than the ocean

For the mountains shall depart
And the hills be removed,
But My kindness shall not depart from you,
Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,”
Says the LORD, who has mercy on you.
Isaiah 54:10

It is important to see a pattern here.

In all of Scripture, Abraham is the first man to be sick of God’s sh—- His seemingly empty promises

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”

But Abram said, “LORD God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”

But a son was promised to Abraham, and Isaac was delivered.  And now God once again promises a Son, One who will Himself deliver:

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6-7

Abaraham’s son Isaac would be the father of Israel.  This newly promised Son will be the father of an everlasting kingdom:

Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will perform this.
Isaiah 9:6-7

But this kingdom without end, in some odd way, will be enacted not just through the Son’s life, but through his passion and death

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Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.

He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

And they made His grave with the wicked
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.

He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 54:4-12

The unhuman God will send a human Son to the world, to save Israel, to adopt the Gentiles, to create a new heaven and a new earth.

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Then they shall bring all your brethren for an offering to the LORD out of all nations, on horses and in chariots and in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the LORD, “as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD.

And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,” says the LORD.
Isaiah 66:20-21

The incomprehensible God will send a Son. This Son will be born, establish an eternal kingdom, and die. His passion and death will save the world. The Son’s eternal kingdom will last forever, the LORD Himself will reign.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing,
And her people a joy.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
And joy in My people;
The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her,
Nor the voice of crying.
Isaiah 65:17-19

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The Apologetics of C.S. Lewis

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

How can the incomprehensible be understood?

Through analogy.

To understand C.S.Lewis’ writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that you may live forever.

These thoughts coming after reading Lewis’ four best known Christian books. A Grief Observed is a selection of Lewis’s private journals on the death of his wife. The Screwtape Letters is a comedy about demons and their surprisingly bureaucratic method of corrupting human souls. The Great Divorce is a journey to the afterlife. Mere Christianity, reads both as a basic introduction to Christianity and its ultimately purpose.

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In every work Lewis views as central the Christian belief that Christ will “come to judge the living and the dead,” that Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead, and live everlasting… the life of the world to come.” In other words, that we may live forever.

Lewis seems is the first writer I’ve encountered to truly consider this possibility seriously.

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
Isaiah 11:6-8

C.S.Lewis fought in the First World War, and lived through the economic disruption of the 1920s. So by “to live forever” in keeping with the Christian creeds, Lewis did not understand flying-babies-with-harps. The literal implication of Christian doctrine is

  • A massive disruption in the market for security
  • A massive disruption in the market for commodities
  • A massive disruption in the market for time

The consequences to these to the government, military, agricultural, industrial, and luxury sectors of the economy — that is much of human life — is clear. The corruption of those who have confused market virtues with personal virtues perhaps less obvious, but no less destructive

If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disasterous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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The seemingly hyperbolic words of the scriptures…

They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat
Revelation 7:16

… may be less a description of eternal bliss, and more a description of the next environment in which bliss might be found through Christian belief and practice, for those willing to do so.

for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Revelation 7:17

What Christianity does not promise is absence of other people. In fact, we are promised there will be others. This next land, where security, commodities, and time are all filled full, is already inhabited. In the midst of our happiness will be some of our enemies.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Psalms 23:5

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But what equilibrium might be found in that situation? How does rational choice work when we aren’t choosing security, or commodities, or time?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
John 13:34

Lewis’s answer (explicit in Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, implicit in A Grief Observed and Screwtape Letters) is that there are only two steady states: to be close to others, or to be infinitely far away from them. The life in this world, and even the connections we make in this world, are not ends in themselves. They are the context for an everlasting series of decisions in the life of the world to come, which will lead to the limit of alienation or the limit of Oneness.

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:18

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7

That is to say,

Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

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But to understand Lewis’s writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that on this world, we suffer.

But Lewis’ best work here is A Grief Observed, because instead of attempting to defend a theological position using logic, reason, and argument, he is reeling over the death of his wife. No Christianity, no concept of everlasting life, is more than a children’s story without more knowledge of the world than a child has. So as this post began with lofty and general concepts of Christianity, teaching, and the resurrection, I’ll close it with Lewis’s own words on his own grief.

If this world, with its scarcity markets in security, commodities, and time is just a context for the next, what sort of context is it?

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

For what and Whom is that context necessary?


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