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Archive for August, 2012

Yesterday Andrew Peterson officially released his latest album, Light for the Lost Boy. Having now lived with Lost Boy for a whole day, I heartily commend it to you.  (It’s available for download/order here.)

If you want to hear more, two reviews in particular have helped me more fully appreciate the depth and excellence of Andrew’s most recent work: Jonathan Rogers’s release review, and S. D. Smith’s The Weight of Our Story (part of Andrew Peterson appreciation week at the excellent site Story Warren).

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Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee;

For Thou hast formed us for Thyself,

And our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.

Augustine, Confessions I.i.

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When the purport of the images — what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.

C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 52 (1963).

A man wakes up on a misty morning. He looks out his window and likes what he sees. So he dresses and walks out his door to enjoy what has been given him.

The mist doesn’t last long.  But while it lasts it softens the edges of the world, brings out its colors, and dances with the shafts of light from the rising sun.

And then it vanishes. The man emits a satisfied sigh. God makes everything beautiful in its time.(1)

I can imagine another man — say, a photographer (2) — waking up the same morning, somewhere in the same vale, seeing the same mist, the same light, the same landscape.  Recognizing the aesthetic value of what he sees, he runs to find his camera.  He then rushes out his door, and searches frantically for just the right place to best capture the dance of mist and light and landscape — to find the vantage point from which mist and light and landscape appear to greatest advantage. He snaps a few pictures to preserve their beauty for posterity, to preserve the past for the future.

But it isn’t preserved. A window on it is preserved. If the photographer has done his work well, it may be a clear window. But still it’s a window only; the misty morning itself isn’t preserved. And the sigh the photographer emits when the greedy fingers of the rising sun have stolen the last lingering mists will likely be of a much different kind than our first man’s sigh of satisfaction.

God has set eternity in the man’s heart, but in such a way that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.(3)

We cannot capture vapor. We can enjoy its flirting and flitting through our fingers, but fixity is not one of its virtues.  Likewise we cannot shepherd the wind.  For starters, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  Even if we did, we still couldn’t pick up stray wind, lay it across our shoulders, and carry it back to the fold.

Welcome to life under the sun.

For many years I could not begin to understand what Koholeth — i.e. Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes — was teaching. His book seemed to oscillate between pounding home the vanity of life, and then exhorting us to enjoy life — food, drink, company, and toil.  Enjoy your vain life.

I can take instruction from paradox, but not schizophrenia.

But Koholeth was not schizophrenic.  His translators, unjustly, made him seem so.  And they made him seem so by doing precisely the opposite of what C. S. Lewis said to do: they trusted abstractions like “vanity” and “meaninglessness,” rather than trusting images, like “vapor.”  Koholeth was on about hebel, vapor — a rich word because it’s a picture, the kind that’s worth at least a thousand pictureless words.

The vaporousness of life under the sun may very often vex us. It may turn much of our toil to vanity — especially if we labor under the delusion that our lives are going to turn a profit under the sun. But vapor is too reliably elusive a thing to be reduced to an abstraction, like vanity. And if God gives us the ability to do so (4), we will recognize life under the sun, in all its vaporousness, for what it is — and we will enjoy it.

(1) Ecclesiastes 3:11.

(2) I use the photographer as an example, not out of any disrespect for his vocation. This man could just as well be a painter or poet.

(3) Ecclesiastes 3:12.

(4) Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.

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Socrates walks into a room with four other men. In the room sits a table, upon which rests a pint-sized glass, filled exactly halfway with water.

Socrates asks, “half full or half empty?”

“Half full!” says the optimist.

“Half empty,” drones the pessimist.

The realist, with his typical economy, says “yes.”

The Irishman says, “If it were beer in the glass it would’ve been completely empty before the Greek lad finished his question.”

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A man may be in sympathy with the modern movement for the emancipation of woman and yet feel aggrieved when a mere girl proves herself a more efficient thief than himself. Woman is invading man’s sphere more successfully every day; but there are still certain fields in which man may consider that he is rightfully entitled to a monopoly—and the purloining of scarabs in the watches of the night is surely one of them.

P. G. Wodehouse, Something New ch. x (1915).

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On his side, also, the man who had impersonated Professor de Worms was not less communicative. His own story was almost as silly as Syme’s.

“That’s a good get-up of yours,” said Syme, draining a glass of Macon; “a lot better than old Gogol’s. Even at the start I thought he was a bit too hairy.”

“A difference of artistic theory,” replied the Professor pensively. “Gogol was an idealist. He made up as the abstract or platonic ideal of an anarchist. But I am a realist. I am a portrait painter. But, indeed, to say that I am a portrait painter is an inadequate expression. I am a portrait.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Syme.

“I am a portrait,” repeated the Professor. “I am a portrait of the celebrated Professor de Worms, who is, I believe, in Naples.”

“You mean you are made up like him,” said Syme. “But doesn’t he know that you are taking his nose in vain?”

“He knows it right enough,” replied his friend cheerfully.

“Then why doesn’t he denounce you?”

“I have denounced him,” answered the Professor.

“Do explain yourself,” said Syme.

“With pleasure, if you don’t mind hearing my story,” replied the eminent foreign philosopher. “I am by profession an actor, and my name is Wilks. When I was on the stage I mixed with all sorts of Bohemian and blackguard company. Sometimes I touched the edge of the turf, sometimes the riff-raff of the arts, and occasionally the political refugee. In some den of exiled dreamers I was introduced to the great German Nihilist philosopher, Professor de Worms. I did not gather much about him beyond his appearance, which was very disgusting, and which I studied carefully. I understood that he had proved that the destructive principle in the universe was God; hence he insisted on the need for a furious and incessant energy, rending all things in pieces. Energy, he said, was the All. He was lame, shortsighted, and partially paralytic. When I met him I was in a frivolous mood, and I disliked him so much that I resolved to imitate him. If I had been a draughtsman I would have drawn a caricature. I was only an actor, I could only act a caricature. I made myself up into what was meant for a wild exaggeration of the old Professor’s dirty old self. When I went into the room full of his supporters I expected to be received with a roar of laughter, or (if they were too far gone) with a roar of indignation at the insult. I cannot describe the surprise I felt when my entrance was received with a respectful silence, followed (when I had first opened my lips) with a murmur of admiration. The curse of the perfect artist had fallen upon me. I had been too subtle, I had been too true. They thought I really was the great Nihilist Professor. I was a healthy-minded young man at the time, and I confess that it was a blow. Before I could fully recover, however, two or three of these admirers ran up to me radiating indignation, and told me that a public insult had been put upon me in the next room. I inquired its nature. It seemed that an impertinent fellow had dressed himself up as a preposterous parody of myself. I had drunk more champagne than was good for me, and in a flash of folly I decided to see the situation through. Consequently it was to meet the glare of the company and my own lifted eyebrows and freezing eyes that the real Professor came into the room.

“I need hardly say there was a collision. The pessimists all round me looked anxiously from one Professor to the other Professor to see which was really the more feeble. But I won. An old man in poor health, like my rival, could not be expected to be so impressively feeble as a young actor in the prime of life. You see, he really had paralysis, and working within this definite limitation, he couldn’t be so jolly paralytic as I was. Then he tried to blast my claims intellectually. I countered that by a very simple dodge. Whenever he said something that nobody but he could understand, I replied with something which I could not even understand myself. ‘I don’t fancy,’ he said, ‘that you could have worked out the principle that evolution is only negation, since there inheres in it the introduction of lacuna, which are an essential of differentiation.’ I replied quite scornfully, ‘You read all that up in Pinckwerts; the notion that involution functioned eugenically was exposed long ago by Glumpe.’ It is unnecessary for me to say that there never were such people as Pinckwerts and Glumpe. But the people all round (rather to my surprise) seemed to remember them quite well, and the Professor, finding that the learned and mysterious method left him rather at the mercy of an enemy slightly deficient in scruples, fell back upon a more popular form of wit. ‘I see,’ he sneered, ‘you prevail like the false pig in Aesop.’ ‘And you fail,’ I answered, smiling, ‘like the hedgehog in Montaigne.’ Need I say that there is no hedgehog in Montaigne? ‘Your claptrap comes off,’ he said; ‘so would your beard.’ I had no intelligent answer to this, which was quite true and rather witty. But I laughed heartily, answered, ‘Like the Pantheist’s boots,’ at random, and turned on my heel with all the honours of victory. The real Professor was thrown out, but not with violence, though one man tried very patiently to pull off his nose. He is now, I believe, received everywhere in Europe as a delightful impostor. His apparent earnestness and anger, you see, make him all the more entertaining.”

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare ch. viii (1908).

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Red is the most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe; it is the fiercest note, it is the highest light, it is the place where the walls of this world of ours wear thinnest and something beyond burns through. It glows in the blood which sustains and in the fire which destroys us, in the roses of our romance and in the awful cup of our religion. It stands for all passionate happiness, as in faith or in first love.

Now, the profligate is he who wishes to spread this crimson of conscious joy over everything; to have excitement at every moment; to paint everything red. He bursts a thousand barrels of wine to incarnadine the streets; and sometimes (in his last madness) he will butcher beasts and men to dip his gigantic brushes in their blood. For it marks the sacredness of red in nature, that it is secret even when it is ubiquitous, like blood in the human body, which is omnipresent, yet invisible. As long as blood lives it is hidden; it is only dead blood that we see. But the earlier parts of the rake’s progress are very natural and amusing. Painting the town red is a delightful thing until it is done. It would be splendid to see the cross of St. Paul’s as red as the cross of St. George, and the gallons of red paint running down the dome or dripping from the Nelson Column. But when it is done, when you have painted the town red, an extraordinary thing happens. You cannot see any red at all.

I can see, as in a sort of vision, the successful artist standing in the midst of that frightful city, hung on all sides with the scarlet of his shame. And then, when everything is red, he will long for a red rose in a green hedge and long in vain; he will dream of a red leaf and be unable even to imagine it. He has desecrated the divine colour, and he can no longer see it, though it is all around. I see him, a single black figure against the red-hot hell that he has kindled, where spires and turrets stand up like immobile flames: he is stiffened in a sort of agony of prayer. Then the mercy of Heaven is loosened, and I see one or two flakes of snow very slowly begin to fall.

G. K. Chesterton, The Red Town, in Alarms and Discursions xi (1910).

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