Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Shack

Book: The Shack
Author: William P Young
Edition: Paperback, 2007
Read: August 2008
258 pages
Rated: 4
out of 5

I have a mixture of reaction to this book. It started with the Eugene Peterson’s plug saying “this could be this generations Pilgrim’s Progress”. Is The Shack that great of a book? Well, no. As literature goes, it is sort of clichéish. It reads more like an action pack spiritual thriller.

But at a different level, once you get beyond the writing style, the author has a lot to say, at least to me. Such as what is God’s relationship to me—or more importantly, what relationship do I have with God? Young portrays God’s more folksy than I care to think about—there is none of the arm’s length, holy whole other, but closer to some real sensitive folk who want the best for you.

What Young does well is to portray God wants the best for you and will go to great extremes to not only reach out to you, but pursue you. This is not a chase by a lion after his prey, but a burning stick scorching the innards of your soul. Young shows that God knows our inward thoughts, but will allow you to expose them in your time.

A big part of this fictional story is tragedy avoided – tragedy occurring. Where is God in all of this? Young’s answer is God is along side of us. While he does provide some insight, he tries, but unsuccessfully, to work through the “why” question.

A theme plays through out the book is joy vs. sadness. Young’s protagonist, Mack, has experienced a great tragedy—the loss of his daughter. He has entered in a period of his life which he calls, “The Great Sadness”. As Mack goes through the story, joy replaces sadness, culminating in the reunion of his estranged father. But joy is not happiness. It is deeper. Young starts the book noting that joy inhabits the storms in nature. The stuff God makes shows the nature of God.

The book wraps up all loose ends: relationships healed, people changed, missing body laid to rest. I have not seen that life is so neat and clean. Maybe I am not that spiritual-actually I know I am not. Yet when you read the lives of the saints, their lives are not serene, but full of turmoil. They know the path to take—I read and do not detect indecision. May be a sequel is to show a life lived works.

Something I appreciate is Young acknowledgements. He names off many of my favorites. He starts each chapter with a quote from an author or songwriter. In many paces he seems to lift ideas—if not the words—from other authors. Page 80 sounds like Lucy coming into Narnia; page 99 is similar to L‘Engle’s Walking on Water. When Young talks about nature, there are remembrances of Annie Dillard. Sometimes you make a cookie with everything you like in it and it just does not meet expectations. Some places it works, other it does not.

This is a flawed book—but one which has caused me to rethink my relationship with God. Do I try to experience Him? Do I value Him? Trust Him? Love Him? In that respect, it is a successful book.
By the way, there are surprises for you when you read the book.

Notes from my book group:
The reaction is mixed. To some it was unreadable because it was too corny. TO others, they found meaning here.

Good Quotes:
  • - Sometimes honesty can be incredibly messy. pg 68
  • - It does a soul good to let the waters run once in a while. … Don’t ever discount the wonder of tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes they are the best words the heart can speak. Pg 83, 228
  • - Love always leaves a significant mark. Pg 96
  • - Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself—to serve. Pg 106
  • - Sin is its own punishment, devouring you form the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish; it’s my joy to cure it. Pg 120
  • - It’s not the work, but the purpose that makes it special. Pg 131
  • - The choice to hide so many wonders from you is an act of over that is a gift inside the process of life. Pg 132
  • - Judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right. Pg 169
  • - Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. Pg 185
  • - Faith does not grow in the house of certainty. Pg 189
  • - It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way. Pg 192
  • - If anything matters, then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes, every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes… pg 235

Chance Meetings

Book: Chance Meetings
Author: William Saroyan
Edition: GK Hall, 1978
Read: Sept 2008
174 pages
Rated: 2
out of 5

When you read a Pulitzer Prize winning author and you say the book does not make sense, you wonder about your tastes, you wonder what you are missing, why you are not picking up on what the author is saying? As it turns out my book group had about the same thoughts as I did.

What is the book about? A series of memories by Saroyan, both of friends and acquaintances. Those who Saroyan enjoyed and those who he could do without. About how friendship changes as fame grows.

This book had great potential. The title, Chance Meetings, gives you a want to see meaning in each of the meetings view. If there is any meaning from this book, it is lost on me. The stories appear to be of random memories with no central thrust. Is this book like a John Cage symphony? Some thing to be endured because it represents our world? Or is it more like a verbal wanderings of an elderly man?

Even within the short stories, there are possibilities which do not hit the mark. The first section ends with an intriguing line “He can neither choose his parents nor choose not to be drafted into the Army….” But the thought is not advanced. Instead he talks about everybody has a favorite person and that should be himself. That is as far as he takes the thought.

The whole book shows a potential for depth, but then he pulls up short. Saroyan does not delve the depths, but moved onto his next story? Why? Does Saroyan want us to see something else? There is no pattern in our relationships? Only chance meetings? Nothing to tie our lives together? Or was Saroyan just being lazy or lost his abilities when he wrote this book?

Like Saroyan, I will leave this question to ponder, but probably without an answer.

Notes from my book group:
Basic comments included:
- - Slow book
- - Lack of meaning
- - Good cultural view

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Last Season

Book: The Last Season
Author: Eric Blehm
Edition: First Edition, 2006
Read: August 2008
335 pages
Rated: 4
out of 5

The Last Season is about super backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson and his demise. Blehm is a friend of Alden Nash, Morgenson’s supervisor, hence researches the story from that angle. This is a story of a range, it has two warnings:
  • - The mountains are dangerous to any body, even those who are experienced; and
  • - There are dangers in becoming too isolated.
Blehm tells the story well form the point of view of a hero worshipper. He is intrigued with the ways of the backcountry and those who are stationed there to protect and assist.

The story starts with Morgenson being missing and the search which results. He jumps back to Moregenson’s childhood, then to the search followed by some background. Maybe this works to paint a picture of Moregenson better than a straight-forward chronology does. At times it seems too jumpy. The end is the analysis of how could an experienced ranger—more time in the Sierra’s than John Muir—have died in this place.

Blehm does a good job of showing Moregenson as having an artistic bent, in tune with his natural surroundings, but so badly out of tune with people. Even though he did have a knack with those pass through his area or those who were in danger.

Morgenson’s demise is a warning to those of us who enjoy the backcountry. No matter how good you are, no matter how pleasant the surroundings, you can get hurt real fast. Nature can be anthropomorphized but the bottom line is it is a rock, cold water, and wild animals are there. Things happen.

But even more of a warning is the social implications. As Morgenson enjoyed the solitude, so he became extremely self-centered and selfish. He ignored his promises, his wife’s emotional needs, his friends and only centered on his self. This story portrays why a person needs companionship as well as solitude. They are a balance to each other.

While some of Morgensons fascination are a bit over the top; his joy in knowing and personalizing nature I understand.

One of the reasons why the story works for me is I can see the areas of the Sierras both through experience and through my maps. The book helps me to live the experience. It is exciting.

There are a few quotes--his attempt at writing is much too descriptive for me. I enjoyed the read.

Good Quotes:
  • We’re a restless breed, we moderns. Hardest it is to sit still and be attentive to our surroundings. Boredom comes to most of us very quickly. Randy Morgenson, pg 155
  • Why does a flower, a tree, anything exist? Because the universe would not be complete without it. Randy Morgenson, pg 293
  • Here is your chance to find your own way. Don’t ask me how to get to McGee Canyon or Lake Double Eleven-O. Go, on your own. Be adventuresome. Don’t forever seek the easiest way. Take the way you find. Don’t demand trail signs and sturdy bridges. Don’t demand we show you the mountains. Seek them and find them yourself. Randy Moregenson, pg 313
  • Here’s your one chance to get lost, fall in the creek, find a beautiful pace. Randy Moregenson, pg 314
  • The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Five People You Meet In Heaven

Book: The Five People You Meet In Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
Edition: Hyperion, Hardback
Read: July 2008
196 pages
Rated: 3
out of 5

First, this book is not about theology or religion. It is a vehicle for Albom to remind us of certain truths—effects upon our lives which others have. He uses a relatively insignificant life and death to illustrate the power our lives have on those around us.

Albom takes the life of an ordinary person-a repairman at an amusement park called Ruby’s Pier. He dies while trying to save a little girl from a falling ride at the park. The story weaves his life, full of unfulfilled hopes, which looks like it has little meaning. When he dies he meets five people who have waited for him to die. These five people help him to see his life from a different perspective.

Even though Albom’s book is largely secular, it is head to escape religious statements, such as “understand your life” is God’s greatest gift. From the quotes below, it appears the Albom is more of a person who would subscribe to certain fuzzy philosophies—the oneness of us all, We start as pristine people and are warped with our environments, …

  • Lesson one-We are all connected—even if we do not know it. This was brought to Eddie by a man he did not know, but which saved his life by dying himself. Nothing spectacular—just avoiding Eddie while driving, and dying of a heart attack. Lesson? We are just family; we have not realized it yet.
  •  Lesson two-Sometimes the bad we experience prevents the greater bad. In this case Eddie was a POW. He escapes with others. As the group sets fire and the place burns, Eddie thinks he sees a child in a burning building. As Eddie tries to go into the building, he is shot—by his own captain—in order to save Eddie. Eddie only knows this in heaven after spending 60 years in pain, bitter for having it happen to him.
  •  Lesson three-Anger and hatred hurts yourself; forgiveness is the key. Ruby of Ruby Pier appears to Eddie and shows him a side of his father—loyalty to friends and family which he had not seen of his father.
  • Lesson four-Life ends; love does not. Eddie gets to spend time with his wife who has died around 35 years earlier. He realizes she is what made his life bearable. When she died, there was loneliness. She comforts him by having him understand that the love never died only took a different form.
  • Lesson five-We are put here for a reason. Eddie faces a beautiful child—a little girl. As he realizes who she is—the same child who he tried to rescue and who he had set afire in lesson two, the girl changes into a scabbed creature. He washes away the scars and he finds his life was not a waste. After 80 plus years, his final act in life was to save a life. His final task? To meet her and be one of her five people.
This is not a bad book to read. It is a simply written moral story stating we need to appreciate those around us. Not a bad story line to portray. The lessons Albom brings out are good reminders, but nothing more than what you would hear on Sunday mornings. So does he do it well? In a way causing you to think? Uniquely? Compellingly? He tells a somewhat flat story from an interesting vantage point. I personally do not find how he tells the story as something I want to go out and change my approach to things.

So to a person who does not have the connectiveness of a good religious community, this book may upon up some avenues of thought.

Good Quotes:
  • Pg 49 – Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.
  • Pg 50 – No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.
  • Pg 104 – All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.
  • Pg 113 – You have peace when you make it with yourself.
  • Pg 126 – Parents rarely et go of their children, so children let go of them.
  • Pg 173 – Lost love is still love. It takes a different form, that’s all….Life has to end, love doesn’t.
- Mitch Albom’s Web Site

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

July Reads


Reviews I need to Do:
The Shack by William Young
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Great Divorce - CS Lewis
For One More Day by Mitch Albom

Books I Want To Read:
Money&Power by Ellul
The Shack by William Young (reread)
Great Souls By David Aikman
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (started aready)

June (Status):

Reviews I need to Do:

The Ball and the Cross - GK Chesterton (Done)
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Collective Works - GK Chesterton (Done)
Abolition of Man - CS Lewis (Done)
Great Divorce - CS Lewis

Books I want to Read:

The Madman and The Professor (Done)
The Shack - William Young (Done)
Money&Power by Ellul (In Progress)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Professor and The Madman

Book: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Edition: Harper Perennial-Paperback
Read: June 2008
242 pages
Rated: 3½
out of 5

This popular book walks us through the troubled history of Dr William Chester Minor. Which really begs the questions of, who is Dr. Minor and why should we be interested?

The first question’s answer is answered very easily by Winchester. Dr. Minor was born to missionary parents in South East Asia. His mother died early and his father remarried. He had three siblings. He was Yale educated, where he rethought his Christianity, which he decided to drop. During the Civil War, he enlisted as a medical doctor, spending most of the war in New England. But, he did get sent south and was a doctor in the brutal Battle of the Wilderness. Winchester points to an incident where Minor had to brand an Irish person as being a pivotal point. His conjuncture is that this incident was the tipping point where a sensitive person such as Dr. Minor could have lost his mental balance. After this, Dr. Minor’s actions lead him to an asylum. After being released, Minor took an extended trip to Europe. While in London, he shot a man during a period of his nightly delusions. He was then locked up in the Broadmoor Asylum where he spent close to his remaining life.

It’s the second question where the fun starts. Minor was a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED had asked for volunteers to find quotes exemplifying words and their various meanings as well as the earliest uses of the meaning. Minor provided at least 10,000 quotes of words which made it into the dictionary. Usually his words were the hardest to find. Both the quantity, quality of the quote, with the efficiency of providing the quote at the appropriate time caught the attention of the editor, Dr. James Murray. This began the 20-30 year relationship, started out by pure chance, which became one of the few sources of comfort and enjoyment for Minor.

Winchester describes in great detail the making of the OED. The history includes Samuel Johnson and Richard Trench roles in the making of OED. Dr. Murray came to be editor because of both his skills as a lexicographer and availability. Winchester writes how over the years, the hundreds of thousands of words were compiled and how definitions, quotes and background was gathered. Winchester points out that the OED guiding principle depended on its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or recorded uses of the English language (pg 25). This is good stuff.

Dr. Minor comes in during this part. With a great deal of free time, and a mind attentive to making a systematic study, Minor became a highly respected source of quotes within the OED community. Minor’s methods lead to the huge volume and great quantity.

But the second question still lingers in my mind. Why should we consider Dr. Minor? Why spend an afternoon reading about him? Why read about anybody? Most people’s lives are so common—no different than my own. Yet as both Chesterton and Pascal point out, each person is interesting. In fact as you look at people more you realize how interesting they become. Why is that?

Evidently Winchester thinks that individual lives are important. He takes a special interest in Georg Merritt. Merritt is the man Minor killed. To history and the great scheme of things, he is a footnote; a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; a man of misfortune. But without Merritt, Minor would not be locked up. Without Merritt’s wife becoming friends with Minor and even forgiving Minor, the OED would be significantly less rich. It probably was Merritt’s wife who brought Minor books and in one of the books was a leaflet requesting volunteers for finding quotes for the OED.

Religion plays an underlying role in both Minor’s life and Winchester’s account. When reading Winchester’s account of Minor’s religious influences, you have to read with a sense that the observer is not unbiased in this area. For example, on page 49, Winchester makes the unsupported statement, Guilt—perhaps a frequent handmaiden among the peculiarly pious—seems to have intervened, even more than a teenager’s shyness or natural caution. It sounds like Winchester is reading 20th century norms into 1850’s missionary life.

Winchester shows a bit more distain for religious work on pg 103 where Trench being called a divine, says that it is only a term for good Victorians.

Yet on page 69, Winchester says that Minor was an artistic man, like someone with a soul. What does this statement mean? I doubt that Winchester meant it was as a religious statement, but when you get to bottom of things, how can it mean anything else—a person who has depth, a person who has meaning, a person who understands the nature of things.

It is hard to get away from the ultimate questions. When Winchester talks about previous dictionaries (pg 102), he asks Who now remembers their dictionaries and who today makes use of all that they achieved? A good question-one which can be personalized to all of us. What difference does it make that a human called Gary Duran every existed? What was Minor’s true calling? Doctor? Dictionary maker? Only the Maker can answer that.

Winchester does go on and talk about great men who would risk big for greatness. Winchester hits pretty close to home on page 133 where he says that Minor whole personality changed because he had something valuable to do. This is so true. If you ever want to demoralize someone, just tell them that their work does not count.

Murray is buried with appropriate honor. Minor with a small unobtrusive head stone. George Merritt only in an anonymous plot of ground. Where do we all end up? What does it matter? It matters not in what we do, or accomplish, nor in who we know, but in our faithfulness.

From Winchester’s account, Dr Minor had an immense sexual appetite. Dr Minor had several episodes of gonorrhea and other sexual diseases. In several cities where Minor was, he made a habit of visiting houses of pleasure. From Winchester’s account, Minor’s fascination with sex was from his days in Ceylon with his missionary parents. Seeing native girls topless made an impression on him. This would its way through his mind as the years passed on. Winchester thinks this may have been due to repression from his religious upbringing.

In my opinion some of the sexual nature of Minor’s sickness may have been over stated. On page 194, Winchester points to the temporary close relationship Minor had with Merritt’s widow. Winchester speculates that there may have been more than just a bond of friendship. It may have been a relationship with sex as well. Winchester then goes on and says that there is nothing which suggests this was the case. Then why bring it up?

So where did Minor’s madness originate from? Winchester provides several alternatives: Religion, repressed sexuality at an impressionable age, a heat stroke suffered in the Florida summertime sun, or war and brutality on a sensitive soul. All are provided as reasons and none are discarded. I suspect that the reason why there is not direct cause of Minor’s insanity is that humans are complex in their psychology. No easy answers or formulas. We all have our weaknesses and strengths which allows us to be different from our neighbor. Minor had withdrawn from the religious ties of his upbringing—which did carry its own baggage—but without the foundations for other supporting structures. Once a shock was given to his system, he did not recover. Winchester concluded that when Minor branded a deserter in the Civil War, it triggered the insanity (page 213)

When Minor castrates himself, Winchester credits the religious awaking (pg 190) Minor had been having over the two previous years. Neither the madness nor the sexual misconduct Minor had been experiencing most of this life. He goes after the guilt, not the guilty. Finally on page 193 after exploring Minor’s religious connections, Winchester points to his delusion, not religion as the culprit. Even then, Winchester reports that Minor is a deist, not a Christian.

Winchester for as much as he wants to be a historical writer, he is not a historian. The accuracy or better said, the precision of his words is lacking. Such as on page 17 when he describes “three of them” told the courtroom about the sad captain, Dr. Minor. Who is them? Turned out that it is three of the twenty witnesses and all three are from the police. Hard to figure out whom Winchester is talking about. Or on page 117 he talks about the horses sweating slightly. While a minor coloration, what source did he get this from? Also his view of Minor’s mental illness is through the lens of religion and sex. This colors his view of the strong events.
Even with its short-comings on perspective, the book makes fascinating reading. As expected when reading a book about a dictionary, you will find a great many words needing to be looked up. Winchester provides nine of his favorite words. As you read this book, be sure to have a dictionary close by—that is the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary.

New Words:
  • Lubricious – lewd
  • Portmanteau - a large travelling bag made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts; or before another noun consisting of two or more aspects or qualities
  • Tocsin- an alarm bell or signal
  • Japanned-OED does not have this word.
  • Pall Mall- Gary’s question: does Pell Mell descend from Pall Mall?
  • Consanguineous- of the same blood or origin; specifically : descended from the same ancestor
  • Taffeta- a crisp plain-woven lustrous fabric of various fibers used especially for women's clothing
  • Licanthropia- a delusion that one has become a wolf
  • Fecund- intellectually productive or inventive to a marked degree
  • Amanuenses- one employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript
  • Diktats- a harsh settlement unilaterally imposed
  • Astrakhan- a cloth with a usually wool, curled, and looped pile resembling karakul
  • Gerund- a verbal noun in Latin that expresses generalized or uncompleted action
  • Fascicle- one of the divisions of a book published in parts
  • Martinet-a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods
  • Ameliorate- to make better or more tolerable
  • Priapism- an abnormal often painful persistent erection of the penis
  • Parsimonious-frugal to the point of stinginess
  • Alopecia- loss of hair, wool, or feathers
  • OED Site:
  • Wikipedia-
  • Ask Oxford:
  • Richard Chevenix Trench
  • Wikipedia-
  • Poems-
  • Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries=Google Books
  • Chesterton reference: It is very difficult to find an unimportant subject or even an uninteresting subject. I have done through most of my life looking for an uninteresting subject--or even an uninteresting person. It is the romance of my life that I have failed to find either of them yet. The Illustrated London News, January 11, 1913, "Bacon and Shakespeare, Again"
  • Pascal reference: The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.-- Pensee's, 7
  • to pile Pelion on Ossa - to attempt an enormous but fruitless task.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

GK Chesterton Collected Works Volume 29, 1911-1913

Book: GK Chesterton Collected Works Volume 29, 1911-1913
Author: GK Chesterton
Edition: Ignatius Press
Read: March 2008
608 pages
Rated: 4
out of 5

Ignatius Press is putting out a collection of GK Chesterton’s works. The volume I read is 29 of the at least 35 volumes published. Obviously Chesterton is a prolific writer—which is an understatement. He is a writer of great wit, which he shows in this collection of newspaper columns, making this a good read. The columns cover three year period from 1911 to 1913 in The Illustrated London News.

Anytime which you read Chesterton, you have to understand, he was a man of his times. He used phrases which make us wince and shudder. But so did most people of his day. So some of his views are dated (Does dated mean wrong? Sometimes. I suspect most of time it just means out of fashion.) His use of certain ethnic terms, particularly pertaining to African descent and Jewish people are no longer acceptable. So you do need to read with caution.

But his insight on issues transcends his time—they cut a straight line to similar concerns of today. Even as WWI drew to an opening, Chesterton was pointing out that no real soldier wants to fight; it is those who have not seen real fighting want to fight.

I know that when he talks about the feminists of his day, it will rankle some of my friends. He talks about feminists with a mixture of quaintness which is out of pace for today. But he does talk about the stridency which laces our dialogue and concerns for being able to talk. In places there is a certain sense of admiration for some of the people who he knows—of course other paces he thinks there are other who are compete off base. But the call to civilality can be heeded in our time.

The columns stand alone and can be read, as a reader of a column would have read them. Some still stand up well; Others you need to be a Chesterton aficionado to enjoy. But you almost always will get the pleasure from his use of words—look at the sample quotes below.

Good Quotes-a small sample:
  • "Superficially one would fancy that complexity of civilization and subtlety of thought would go together, but they do not." - October 7, 1911, "The Meaning of Loyalty"
  • "A real soldier does not fight because he has something that he hates in front of him. He fights because he has something that he loves behind his back" - January 14, 1911, "Christmas and Disarmament"
  • "The aim of arguement is differing in order to agree; the failure of arguement is when you agree to differ" - April 2, 1911, "Shaw On Marriage"
  • It is in the clash of circumstances that men are most alive. - November 22, 1913, "The Fulfillment of Wishes"
  • As Christians, should always believe that this is a white world with black spots, not a black world with white spots. I should always believe the good in it was its primary plan. - May 31, 1913, "Tolerating Other Religions"
  • Human life is not a destiny; but it is a drama. - April 13, 1913, "The Unpredictability of Humanity"
  • You cannot learn by your mistakes unless you have first learnt that they are mistakes. - December 21, 1912, "Progress and Human Failure"
  • Idealists, consistent idealists, succeed much better than anyone else, because no man can be at ease in the presence of his own neglected ideal. - June 29, 1912, "The Right Way to Denounce Things"

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Abolition of Man

Book: The Abolition of Man
Author: CS Lewis

Edition: 1965 MacMillian Paperback Edition

Read: May 2008

121 pages

Rated: 3
out of 5

 A little hairline crack, a little tree root. That’s all it takes to break a solid slab of granite. That is how culture gets changed; not with a stick of dynamite. CS Lewis starts by looking at the curriculum in schools and sees what the implications are through society as our thinking changes. He calls us back to what he calls the Tao (pg 29), the core beliefs which are held across the centuries and cultures; what he believes is universal.
This book was made from three lectures from the Riddell Memorial Lectures. It was the fifteenth in the series. These lectures are given at the University of Durham. It consisted of three lectures covering “Men Without Chests”, “The Way” and “The Abolition of Man”.

Lewis is a scholar and he knew his stuff. The Greeks are quoted extensively; but not just them but from many other ancient cultures such as the Chinese are used in his argument. The argument which Lewis uses is not Christian-based, but one which is available to any philosophy based in rationality, historicity, and values. It is supportive of a Christian argument. Lewis understood this argument as a rationalist. Here he is at the top of his form. (It should be noted that shortly afterwards, Lewis was in a debate with a Catholic nun who shows Lewis the falsity of a rationalistic approach.) The Abolition of Man is one of his last philosophical works. See the 50th anniversary lecture for more background.

If you guessed that this not an exciting book, you are right. It is a book where Lewis directly attacks the creeping thinking of a materialistic world. He talks how the school books want to remove subjectism, but they leave nothing in its place. So a sunset is left as filtering sunlight through particles of dust. Beauty is removed—or at least the means to convey.

The conclusion of the first chapter leaves no illusions on where Lewis lies—when we remove the values we count as important, we are left with people without values; the values which drive them to live honorably. Valueless human are like men without chests.

But Lewis does not answer the question of are values real, objective, verifiable (this begs the question of what is real?). His second chapter works towards an answer—The Way, The Tao. Are the values we hold only a matter of survival? Like Nietzsche, can we say we have outgrown our values? We no longer need these values for survival? Our debunking is like a child taking his ball and going home. He has the ball, but nobody, including himself, can play the game. No fun, no opportunity, no chance to be heroic. We are left with nothing constructive, nothing good, only destruction.

To Lewis, values are something which is self-evident. It is not something to be proved. He goes on to state, that man cannot invent new values anymore than he can invent a new primary color. (pg 56). But values or the Tao can be developed and explored. The corrupted man stands outside of the Tao so the Tao cannot be seen.

Finally Lewis gets to the conclusion. Man has conquered all he sees, the only thing left to abolish is man himself. Everything is pure nature; nothing is left external to man. Nothing is left to rule man but man. We have traded long held rules to be ruled by men without rules. In our search for freedom, we have merely traded a stern impersonal master for a master who can be cruel and selfish. Are we better off? This all comes from being transparent, about to see through things till we cannot see anything.

The last of the book is a collection of the Tao. He has collected writings of the Greeks, Chinese, Babylonians and others to show a continuity of value and thought across time and culture. This chapter serves both as a mirror of who we are and a vision of what we are abandoning.
The conclusion on this book. It is a bit dry, but well worth the read. Its worth the read to understand the implications of living in a world as we have today and the little nuances which affects our thinking. That little crack which opens the boulder.

August 2015 - In The Fellowship, Phillip Zaleski identifies The Green Book as Alec King and Martin Ketley's The Control of Language.

Good Quotes:
  • The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts, pg 24
  • By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. Page 24
  • We make men without chests and expect virtue of them and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. Pg 35
  • If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proven. Page 53
  • Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. Page 70
  • Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Page 71
  • For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. page 72
  • Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man. Page 80
  • If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see. Page 91

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Ball and The Cross

Book: The Ball and the Cross
Author: GK Chesterton
Edition: Guttenberg
Read: June 2008
164 pages
Rated: 3
out of 5

On top of St Paul’s Cathedral, is a cross on top of a ball. This is the basis for the book, not just the title. The ball is, of course, the world, as in a sphere and the thinking of our era. In Chesterton’s thinking, the cross does mean at the deepest levels the cross of Christ. But a lot of the book is referencing the Church, particularly the Catholic Church.

This is not Chesterton at his prime. But you would have to try real hard to find a modern day writer who can compare to his way with words, even if it is Chesterton at the beginning of his writing. This is his second novel, so there are rough spots. Even Chesterton thought this book was sub-par—see the poem below—written to Father John O’Connor, the original Father Brown. Chesterton also was a man of his times. So remember there was a difference between the acceptable vocabulary of 1910 and 2008. So sometimes, he refers to African’s and Jews in terms which would not be acceptable to us.

There is eighteen chapters of fantasy of two forces in the world—materialism/science and Christianity, sandwiched between two chapters where the war in heaven is portrayed. The book starts with Lucifer in an airship riding with Michael—may represent the archangel or the Church—over the skies of England. Lucifer is de-riding Michael for his simplified views of the world. This abruptly changes as Michael points out to Lucifer that they are running into something, which is the cross on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral. To Chesterton, the world is always, running into the cross. It tries to escape, but always runs into the cross.
Before getting to the rest of the book, I need to take a couple of side excursions. At the end of the chapter, Chesterton writes “And they took the happiest man in the world away to an asylum.” The man is Michael and this is after he has been thrust out of the flying machine—which incidentally happens three other times in the book. Michael lands on the ball and realizes that this is his moment of faith—the way off of the dome is a time of letting go—losing ones life. We will met up with Michael later on, and this thought of losing one’s life to save it.

The second excursion is a phrase which Chesterton uses, “vertigo of the infinite”. The phrase is borrowed from Vincent Van Gogh. This is a phrase I am pondering. This fear of falling from great heights. The climbing to the unattainable heights and looking down at the dizzying view and then understanding you have only just begun. What a rich phrase.

Once the first chapter ends, the main story begins. Turnbull, the atheist who is a bookstore owner and MacIan, the Catholic from the hills of Scotland meet for the first time when MacIan breaks Turnbull window. Why you might ask? Because Turnbull blasphemed the Virgin Mary. Turnbull recognizes that for the first time in twenty years, someone is taking his rantings seriously—Is Chesterton foreshadowing our day when we can say anything we can say or do anything true or untrue, as long as we mind our own business and not interferes with others? Also later on we talk about the meaning and importance of words.

In open court, MacIan challenges Turnbull to a duel. The rest of the story is the dual trying to be fought, but being stopped by a series of figures. In between attempts to fight, the talk about the thoughts, growing founder of each other. Until MacIan says they must fight or be unfaithful to themselves because of caring too much for each other to kill.

At this point, if you look strictly at the plot, it ranges from the fantastic to the lame. The rush to fight in a pawn shop garden, stealing a hansom to run off with, being picked up by a lady and running through police blockades all strike one as being too fantastic. But in Chesterton’s mind, the more fantastic, the closer to truth we go. Look at ManAlive, or The Man Who Would Be Thursday. You are filled with wonder and awe. Better than an Indiana Jones movie. It is not the plot in Chesterton which you read for, it the words and thoughts.

Chesterton goes on though to talk a lot about Christians—not just the atheists—we will talk about that them. As you read this book, you get an undertone of the concern Chesterton has for Christians and their relationship to those who are opposing. MacIan at places does not understand Turnbull or is not familiar with his thinking. Such as in chapter seven where MacIan admits not knowing very much about Turnbull’s belief—or disbelief. Even more so, MacIan is talking in the fourth chapter, Turnbull smiles slightly, when he questions MacIan response to, would it be wrong to like me? Towards the end of the chapter, Chesterton says, If I hate you, its because you hate goodness; if I like you it is because you are good. I am not sure that this is the correct formulation for a Christian. But it is a lot better than how Christians treat abortionists or gays. Jesus’ formulation is to love our enemies. Shows how far MacIan is in his righteousness that he cannot love the atheist. Or another way, Chesterton writes, “He had never really looked at another human being before in his life.” (chapter IX) How can we know and enjoy and have them won over when a person is only a thing, and it? We have become the materialist and not seen the divine in our enemies.

One cannot read Chesterton’s books without needing a healthy sense of humor. This is something Chesterton sees as lacking in Christians. MacIan is a sober fellow throughout the book. Several times MacIan does not see the humor in a situation. When Turnbull makes a comment about MacIan’s family being runners and is this a qualification for a family of warriors, MacIan takes this as a statement. Chesterton’s comment is “MacIan, who never saw a joke in his life.” Or later on in chapter six, Chesterton says that MacIan “had never practiced laughing, and it hurt him very much.” Remember, this is the same Chesterton who ends his book on Orthodoxy saying the hidden attribute of God may be a sense of mirth. In Chesterton’s world, laughter is a great gift, which is not practiced enough, particularly by Christians.

While Christians receive this subtle chastisement throughout the book, the materialist, which he includes those who follow a science only approach, gets a lashing. From the opening scene when Lucifer rides through the air in his flying machine, or at the end with the hygienically, mechanically controlled asylum, Chesterton ridicules such approach .The problem with the material world, is that we are not just material, but we are divine (chpt 7). Materialism leaves no room for the image of God in us. The sterile world leaves something to be desires: “The only objection was that he had nothing to walk towards, nothing to feast about, and no reason whatever for drawing the breath of life.”

One of the stress points is the reason to argue. Today we argue to argue. My take on Chesterton is that he wants to restore us to arguing over words-that is ideas and principles. In Chapter five, when confronted by a person who is more interested in peace than principles, MacIan says “What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? … If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? “ The truth is, we all will argue and argue about lesser things like money and possessions, love, greed and power, and all other things to war about.

In chapter eight, Chesterton points out that religious thinking is pretty static. It is built on ages past. But those with a this-world philosophy suffer from an always changing role. Yesterday’s thoughts destroy the day before yesterday’ today’s destroy yesterday’s. Free-thinkers only destroy yesterday’s Free-Thinkers, not Christianity. The Church is built on the past going forward; today’s thought is built on today and will listen only to today.

Chesterton makes it clear that he is neither a warmonger or peace monger. He equally thinks that blood thirsty philosophy of a glorified war is wrong—remember this was written before World War I. He also rejects the falsity of a higher morality—the peace at any price. He finds it better to believe and die than to live for nothing.

He also has understanding and sympathy for the rich. He sees the desperation of Turnbull’s and MacIan’s rescuer with a fast car. When a smitten MacIan asks the women why did she rescue them from the police, the face is one of desperation and private passion. She is being taught by Ruskin to save life and make things better, but she sees the futility of her own life. Why save that child when the child’s life is so pointless? She see’s hope the dual’s actions-it is so mad it might be true—a typical Chesterton thought. Our world needs a jolt to bring it out of its sorrows.

We then get the contrast with a woman Turnbulls loves. A woman he cannot dishonor. Lewis echo’s Chesterton here—she is not afraid of devils but devils are afraid of her. Lewis’ echo is that a woman like this, butter will not melt in her mouth, but she would think Screwtape is funny. Later Turnbull reveals a side to him because of her. He will not eat the bread of the sacrament—she points out if it is just bread, why not? This is the point where materialism fails—it cannot treat mere matter as matter. It will always have a reaction to it which cannot be accounted for, the beauty of a tree for instance.

The last part of this book, our heroes fall into an asylum. An asylum specially constructed to lure them in and contain them. When out running the police, they jump a fence to escape the police only to be captive by the authorities. Chesterton talks about what is sanity, if the whole world is insane. One place is that insanity is thinking you are someone else. As our friends have infected all they meet, all they meet are eventually thrown into the asylum. Some are diagnosed with one of a kind ailments—such as having one’s boat stolen. Even if this is reality, reality is insanity. Any uniqueness is classified. Once classified, you can be cured. But what is the cure? Normalcy? Sameness?

During this time in the asylum, Turnbull and MacIan both have dreams—temptations. They both discover that the conclusion of their thoughts and philosophies lead to tyranny—places they do not want. MacIan is tempted with doing good; fighting for the cause to bring Christianity to all. He sees the end and it is tyranny of the Church being triumphant and loses its sight for the lost. He saves himself by throwing himself out of Lucifer’s flying machine. Turnbull is also taken up a similar thing happens. Turnbull’s revolution is played out before his eyes. Only those who believe in the cause are fit; only those who are able should continue. This is summed up by Lucifer saying, “Life is sacred; but lives are not sacred.” Turnbull follows the same path as MacIan and Michael-losing himself to save himself. Aren’t we the happiest when our decision leads us on the same path as Christ’s?

The saving happens when they find the most secretive captive in cell A, Michael—remember Michael at the beginning of the story? Michael’s cell is completely walled up so there is no entry or exit. Lucifer is bent on destroying all in the asylum. A fire is set—not by Lucifer, all will be destroyed. As Lucifer flies off, MacIan and Turnbull try to save everyone. But they cannot get to cell A. They stop and listen. The sound is Michael singing. They realize the only way for all to be saved is by calling on Michael—which represents the Church. We do not save the Church, it is the Church which saves us. When he is called, the fires part like the Red Sea and all are saved.

Is this a perfect book? No. It is chaotic and fantastic. Chesterton refines his thoughts as he writes more skillfully in his later books. But this is not a bad read. Just a bit sub-par for him.

New Words:
  • Cyclopean-huge and massive
  • Promptitude - the quality or habit of being prompt
  • Brobdingnagians - imaginary land of giants in Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, marked by tremendous size
  • Recondite – Beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind
  • Tonneau – an enclosed rear compartment of an early automobile
  • Proteus - a Greek sea god capable of assuming different forms
  • Zoetrope - device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures
  • Badinage - playful repartee
Good Quotes:
  • The streets were full of people and empty of adventures., Chpt II
  • But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, Chpt IV
  • Did God make men love each other against their will?, Chpt V
  • What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? … If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Chpt V
  • Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities… The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times chpt VIII
  • What you are doing is so mad that it may be quite true. Chpt X
  • Only once or twice in life is it permitted to a man thus to see the very universe from outside, and feel existence itself as an adorable adventure not yet begun. Chptr XVII
Poem by GK Chesterton on The Ball and the Cross to his good friend Father John O’Connor:
This is a book I do not like
Take it away to Heckmondwike
A lurid exile, lost and sad,
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches (slur), the chapters sprawl
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.

Hail, Heckmondwike! Successful spot!
Saved from the Latin's frothing lot
Where Horton and where Hocking see
The grace of heaven, Prosperity.
Above the chimneys hump and broad
A pillar of most solid cloud;
To starved oppressed Italian eyes,
The place would seem a paradise
And many a man from Como Lake
And many a Tyrolese would take
(If Priests allowed them what they like)
Their holidays in Heckmondwike.
The Belgian with his bankrupt woes,
Who through deserted Brussels goes
The hind that threads those ruins bare
Where Munich and where Milan were
Hears owls and wolves howl like Gehenna
In the best quarters of Vienna
Murmers, in tears "Ah how unlike
The happiness of Heckmondwike!"
In Spain the sad guitar they strike
And yearning, sing of Heckmondwike;
The Papal Guard leans on his pike
And dreams he is in Heckmondwike
Peru's proud horsemen long to bike
But for one hour in Heckmondwike;
Offered a Land Bill, Pat or Mike
Cry "Give us stones --- in Heckmondwike!"
Bavarian beer is good, belike
But try the gin of Heckmondwike.
The Flamands drown in ditch and dyke
Then itch to be in Heckmondwike,
Rise freedom, with the sword to strike!
And turn the world to Heckmondwike

Take then, this book I do not like -
It may improve in Heckmondwike.