Beyond Tenebrae

Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West
© 2019 Brad Birzer
258 pages

Most people, including myself until a few years ago, would describe humanism as a worldview championing the possibility of, and the need for, humans living moral, meaningful lives through and for wholly natural reasons. The word itself, though, has an older and broader meaning, and it’s that which Birzer addresses in Beyond Tenebrae. His Christian humanism is not secular humanism with a soft spot for Jesus, but rather a continuation of the medieval tradition (studia humanitas) — itself fusing Christianity and classical wisdom — that emphasized pursuing the edification of the individual and the polis through the study of the liberal arts (poetry, history, philosophy, etc) .In Beyond Tenebrae, Birzer comments briefly on the state of the west, before sharing reflections on the life and work of those who have lit up the darkness in their time. We live in a crumbling house whose beauty is marred by graffiti, its maintenance neglected by children too absorbed by their solipsistic screens to acknowledge anything besides themselves can exist, and Birzer hopes the example of these remarkable men and women from the past will encourage the reader to pick up the torch and carry on — or perhaps encourage those who feel it’s all hopeless to continue.

Although one expects from the arcane title and subject that Beyond Tenebrae would be heady, that’s not the case at all. Birzer offers the book as tribute to literary friends, authors who have fed his soul and strengthened his mind. As such, it can be conversational — but Birzer is chatty even when he’s lecturing, and his earnest pleasure in talking about these men and women and chewing over their ideas is why he’s one of my favorite people to listen to. The men and women saluted here include the expected (Russell Kirk & Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) as well as more than a few surprises (…Margaret Atwood?) and names known only to scholars. These people did not share an ideology; they were, Birzer comments, all unique individuals, and some were outright characters despite their frequent disdain for Individualism as an ethos. Put them in a room together and one would probably have to look for the exit given the table-pounding arguing that would ensue. They were, however, bound together by the common pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful — and they all considered themselves nothing but links in a chain, bringing the past forward and promoting its wisdom to those who would make the future. Frequently, Birzer’s subjects are responding to the work of the other, as when Solzhenitsyn comments on Nicholas Berdyaez’ principled defiance of the Soviet state. We are here invited to eavesdrop on the Great Conversation.

The title of the book merits some looking-over: Tenebrae refers to the three days of Holy Week , beginning with Maundy Thursday, in which the lights of the altar are successfully dimmed until nothing remains but the darkness of Holy Saturday. It is in that growing darkness that we find ourselves today, Birzer writes. It is a darkness which has been growing for centuries, deepening every decade and never more rapidly than the 20th century. The catholicity of the human experience (catholic as in universal) was being fragmented: specialists studied aspects of human life, but never man in full. Man was being reduced to a thing to be managed by a totalitarian order, language and beauty and personality bulldozed over for the equivalent of parking lots: flat, grey, grim. Tolkien and Lewis both worked the passion of Christendom into their literature, creating the worlds of Middle-Earth and Narnia to illustrate the inner ogres the west faced, and the heroism needed to triumph over them. Many of the subjects themselves realized that they needed to organize and coordinate to better resist the growing tide: they needed to work together to rebuild the Republic of Letters. There were no institutions which could do it for them, least of all the inheritors of the humanist tradition, the Universities. No university today has ‘universal’ man at its heart: the holistic, classical program which began eroding away in the 19th century is almost wholly gone, save in islands like St. John’s, Hillsdale, and a few other places which make a classical education their aim. Instead, the universities produce ever-more arcane and sometimes absurd specializations, and their end products live so firmly in their minds that they’ve lost all touch with reality.

Birzer connects Christian humanism to the conservative tradition — that’s the conservatism of Burke and Kirk, not the bomb & bribe antics of the republican party — because it is the humanist tradition which they seek to conserve; that tradition holds the Permanent Things that Kirk wrote about. Happily, though, Beyond Tenebrae isn’t simply a collection of biographies of people brooding over virtue; instead, Birzer’s extensive reading of his subjects’ works allows him to bring both varied perspectives and and more unexpected merits to the table. A reader dimly familiar with Russell Kirk would expect to find him saluted here for his writings on culture and governance, but Birzer instead focuses on his anti-war writings, as Kirk believed the United States’ permanent war state was steadily eroding its character as a republican nation. (Bill Kauffman would agree.)

Beyond Tenebrae is a must-read for those who read the classics for their insight and edification, as Birzer’s reflection on Christian humanism reveals why the classics have their enduring appeal. For the serious classics reader, Birzer’s book is a extensive visitation and chat with friends, who share with us their wisdom, humor, and unique perspectives. I’ve continued to revisit it in the weeks since I first read it, and suspect I will continue to do so for some time to come. Don’t be surprised to see it a top-ten entry in December!

Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in a World of Unbelief, Joseph Pearce
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Phillip & Carol Zaleski

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Wisdom for your Wednesday: To fall but rise again

For Lent I”ve been reading How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community. I’d like to share some quotations from it.

“The spiritual life is this,” a monastic elder from the Egyptian desert once said, “I rise and I fall. I rise and I fall.”

“[The desert monks] discovered ways to leaven our natural tendencies toward anger, self-absorption, greed, depression, unhealthy appetites, and obsessions. They did this not by repressing those tendencies, but by recognizing we are not our thoughts and we are not our feelings. We can redirect our thoughts and feelings into constructive actions. Doing this allows us to confront life’s inevitable turbulence with equanimity.”

“I find it helps to see life as being like a book,” Cave said. “A book is bound by its covers … so our lives are bounded by birth and death.” He continued by saying that the characters in a book know no horizons. They are not afraid of reaching the last chapter, because they only know the moments that make up their story. We humans who are characters in life “need not worry how long our story is, if it’s a comic strip or an epic,” Cave said. “The only thing that matters is that it’s a good story.”

When I find myself slipping into ego-driven anger once again, it’s time to remind myself that the source of my anger isn’t outside of me. It’s within. It’s my own bruised self-image, acting like a child who’s been denied a second helping of ice cream. Except anger isn’t the ice cream. It’s the arsenic. Humility becomes a lens that helps me recognize the damage my rages do to me and those around me. It compels me to feed my better angels, not the angry wolves inside me.

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Ten Winningest Titles

Five years ago I created a list called “Titles that Win”, not for Top Ten Tuesday but because I was inspired by How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming. Today’s TT on our favorite ‘titles’ offers a chance to revisit and update that list, with entries from the last five years replacing a few on the previous one.

How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, Mike Brown
Death from the Skies!, Phil Plait
Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? Christopher Buckley

The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head, Gary Small

Hey, Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America?, John Siegal Boettner
Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh
How To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen

Prepare to Meet Thy Doom: And Other Gaming Stories, David Kushner
Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff, Matt Kibbe

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Davita’s Harp

Davita’s Harp
© 1985 Chaim Potok
384 pages

Are you a Jew?  Ilana Davita Chandel  gets that question a lot. It’s lobbed at her from Irish and Italian street toughs, and from inquisitive neighbors who see  her swimming on the Sabbath.  Is she a Jew?  Her mother was raised Orthodox, but she left that behind when she embraced Communism and married the exiled son of a timber magnate, a secular goy.  Ilana’s home was absent of religion, save her parents’ devotion to socialism, and their Talmudic study of Engels & Marx —  so what did it matter that her mom’s ancestry made her a Jew?   Davita’s Harp is a coming-of-age story in which a young Jewish girl on the cusp of entering the teen years tries to find what matters. My third Chaim Potok read, it proved just as thoughtful as  The Chosen and its sequel.  

Illana is a girl caught between worlds:  early 20th century New York is a balkanized collection of ethnic neighborhoods,  where an innocent walk down the street can get the unsuspecting traveler shaken down or beaten up if their last name is Italian instead of Irish, or Polish instead of Italian. In her own neighborhood, too, Ilana is stared at:   she’s Jewish, but she doesn’t know any of the stories. She doesn’t keep kosher, and has no idea what Shabbos is. What kind of Jew is she?  Illana’s mind proves her salvation: she turns to books to find the answers to questions that people shake their heads in wonderment that she’d ask.   In this she is inspired by her parents, who yearn for a better world and devote themselves to it, studying and working constantly. They offer support to a fellow traveler, a mystic storyteller named Jakob Daw who has come to America to raise money in support of republican Spain.   Iberia is embroiled in civil war between  various factions of socialists, anarchists, and traditionalists, and that war will haunt Ilana’s life and destroy her parents’ and Jakob’s secular faith.  

I found Davita’s Harp of great interest, not only because Ilana’s status as a perpetual outsider, but because of her parents’ passion and tortured break from the creed that gave them meaning. Their devotion to realizing the revolution is unquestionable, as they devote much of their off time to studying arguments and theory and teaching others or helping raise money for the cause of labor. But in Spain,  Ilana’s father and Jakob see what happens in a revolution: those who grasp for power over others  move to destroy anyone who stands in their way,  including fellow leftists.  While her parents and “Uncle Jakob” are consumed by their work for socialism, a joint effort that they will dispiritedly abandon,  Ilana’s curiosity about the faith of her fathers – or rather, the childhood faith of her mom – sees her more and more involved in the Jewish community around her,  though her inquisitive mind makes her as much a challenge to Orthodoxy as Reuven Malter was. Her mom doesn’t like this, but she doesn’t oppose her daughter’s curiosity, and when hope is lost Illana is not alone in listening to the ancient story of their people.

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After action report: Central Alabama Twisters 3/17/2021

Yesterday at eleven o’clock I was sitting in a sunny courtyard, enjoying coffee with friends. An hour later I was in the library’s tornado-shelter room, trying to keep people from wandering out into the open hallway to look at the funnel sighting across the river. An hour after that, the library and many other city & county offices were closed and evacuated. I’ve never been so close to tornado activity, and had I been home, I would have been closer still: a house in my neighborhood was destroyed by a fallen tree, and just down the road a cousin of mine lost her vehicles, shed, and part of her home to multiple treefalls.

May be an image of sky and tree

We survived ten hours of tornado sightings — I lost track of how many different rotating systems roared through the county yesterday — and can now see the sun again. Fortunately, the worst hit us early, in the light of day: despite initially being under a watch until 3 am, the danger was deemed over by midnight. Remarkably, despite the damage in my area, I never lost power or internet access. I had extra water & batteries for my lamps, and a bag packed in case I needed to pass the night at a friend’s house (there are multiple trees that can fall and smoosh me), and felt “ready”: I realized, though, that I couldn’t find my cellphone battery pack that I purchased back in late 2019, after a storm system knocked out power to my area for most of a day. I’ll have to find that one and buy a second backup, having now experienced the truth behind the expression “Two is one and one is none”. According to the news, the fury of the early storms sapped energy from the atmosphere and prevented the evening systems from getting out of hand,but there’s still a lot of damage, affecting many of the same counties that Zeta rolled through a few months ago. We were all bracing ourselves for something like the April 2011 outbreak that killed hundreds, but thankfully that did not happen.

Well, with the threat of death from the skies over for now, back to life!

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Conspiracies and other stories that make us human

Early last week I read Brian Dunning’s Conspiracies Declassified: The Skeptoid Guide to the Truth Behind the Theories. I used to listen to Skeptoid over a decade ago, enjoying Dunning’s research into the facts behind popular theories and unsolved mysteries. I was left disappointed by Dunning’s attempt to distill that research into book form, though, because Conspiracies Declassified consists of straightforward debunking, with a concluding section on conspiracies which turned out to be true. Most of the subjects will be familiar to ordinary reader, as they include the likes of the Roswell incident, Area 51, Flat Earthism, vaccine denial, 9/11 truthers, and so on. There are also more esoteric theories included, like a reddit claim that Finland doesn’t exist. Dunning’s takedown of these topics is pointed to the point of dismissiveness, and it has the sense of preaching to the choir even moreso than the awkward and redundantly-titled 50 Popular Beliefs People Believe are True. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Skeptoid podcast over the years, but the book is too brusque and void of footnotes to sway those who might be on the fence about its topics.

More interesting by far was Johnathan Gottschall‘s The Storytelling Animal. Gottschall has the fascinating specialization of ‘literature and evolution’, and I stumbled on his book on sale when Suspicious Minds prompted me to wonder if there was a book written on humanity’s obsession with story. There was and I could have it for $1.99. It was fate, obviously. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall argues that humanity is to Story as fish are to water: it’s not only in our nature to constantly tell stories, we are formed by stories. A compelling narrative doesn’t just grip our mind in the figurative sense: the same areas lighting up in our brains if we were to experience the events in novels light up as we read them. This mirror-neuron effect not only allows us to sympathize with people socially as we relate different experiences, but allows the brain to ‘practice’ feelings. ‘Practice’ is also one strong contender for why we have dreams: dreams about threats, fears, and dangers and the challenge to overcome them predominate in observed species. Although we rarely remember the overt happenings in dreams, it is believed that the rehearsals of doom allow our brain to prepare itself for things that might happen, so we are not completely unhinged by the unexpected. Moving beyond neurology, story is central to religious and political order. On its subject alone, this book had the potential to be one of my favorite books of the year, but Gottschall only offers readers a taste of his other academic work: it’s as though we were treated to a bite of a prize dish and then had it taken away. Presumably this is because it’s written to a lay audience, but there are also some more substantive issues, like an internal contradiction: after dismissing claims throughout the years that fiction can be corrosive, Gottschall in a later chapter touts fiction’s ability to alter culture by habituating the reading mind to other norms. If culture can be altered, it can be altered for good or ill — and though we have improved in craft in recent years, our stories have definitely become far more putrid, saturated with graphic violence and often bordering on the pornographic. Although this book was disappointing given its potential, the premise is so broadly appealing I still say it’s very much worth reading.

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News and views: the tyranny of comfort

From “COVID and the Tyranny of Comfort“, Matt Purple. I had a retrospective post planned for today, the observation of the one-year mark of the coronamania episode in Alabama, but this piece from TAC fits the bill.

But it’s still been profoundly inhuman, this exchange of the authentic for the artificial, this bargain of freedom for comfort. It was what the Savage protested against at the end of Brave New World:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

I’ve always thought that’s the greatest howl against tyranny in all of literature, acknowledging as it does that life and liberty are still worth it even if they don’t gratify us as we wish. Yet it also, perhaps intentionally, sets up a false antithesis: comfort and unhappiness. In fact, we can be comfortable and still be deeply unhappy, as we’re now discovering. Freedom and happiness are vibrant, social things; they’re rarely found when you’re sedentary and alone, cozy though you might feel. If nothing else, this last year has been a reminder that community and liberty go together, that both are needed if we want to be happy.

No wonder, then, that the lockdowns have seen spikes in loneliness,suicidal thoughts, and interest in crackpot schemes and ideologies that promise liberation while reducing man to the abstract he is on the screen. And while we can’t be certain how life will look once the pandemic is over, it seems unlikely that the isolation will fully abate. Economists are now chattering about a “K-shaped recovery,” meaning a deeply unequal one, where America number one gets richer and America number two falls off. For the first group, telework is likely to become the new reality. For the second, unemployment will mean more time at home. One is clearly worse than the other, but both will feed into our auxiliary plague of loneliness.

Still, that’s yet to come. First, we need the virus to end and society to reopen. Because this is no way to live. And I say that as someone who’s never run low on toilet paper.

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© 2001 Orson Scott Card
416 pages

When I stumbled upon Orson Scott Card’s ‘women of the bible’ series, I knew I had to try it just out of curiosity. The idea of a science fiction writer turning his hand to Bible fanfiction (in essence) was too interesting a notion to pass up. Rebekah is second in the series, covering the life of Abraham’s daughter-in-law, and it proved quite the surprise on multiple fronts.

Those familiar with the Book of Genesis may recall that a large part of its post-Flood narrative is a family drama, one that begins with Abraham and continues until his grandchildren have multiplied themselves into a full-born nation. Rebekah is a key part of that narrative, marrying Abraham’s son and bearing her own, one of whom will bear the name Israel. In Rebekah, Card is careful to create Rebekah as a character in her own right, however, with a history and a distinct personality, before having her take her place in the larger story where it would be easy to be overshadowed by the likes of Abraham, or even by her sons’ rivalry. She’s a winsome character: creative, intelligent, diligent, and intensely principled. When her father goes deaf, she enlists her brother Laban’s help in trying to create a written alphabet they can use to communicate with him; their father Beuleh can only chuckle before he teaches them the letters he learned from Abraham, instead. We meet Rebekah not as a woman at the well, an answer to a prayer, but as a young girl raised without a mother, forced by circumstance to become the chief of her father’s camp at an early age when he loses his hearing. A hard worker accustomed to paying attention to what needs to be done and doing it, and a faithful daughter devoted to the God of Abraham, she stands her ground against her father’s enemies, against unworthy suitors. and against her own worst tendencies.

To the Biblical background, Card adds a little bit of historicity and incorporates details from Mormon legends, chiefly the Book of Abraham. I thought the continued references to the “holy writings” were an invention of Card until the mention of ‘cureloms’ made me realize there were connections to Mormon literature. The Mormon influence isn’t overt, beyond depicting one of Abraham’s birthright duties as maintaining the “holy writings’ , and having him to be an astronomer as well. These liberties added some needed detail to a world that would otherwise be terribly generic: only character & place name edits would be needed to turn this into a story set in the American Old West, or the Chinese kingdoms period: there are no historical objects like distinct foodstuffs to give the world flavor and weight. It’s a good thing, then, that Rebekah carries so much weight by herself.

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Wisdom Wednesday: There are no problems, only situations

I liberated this screenshot from a facebook group on the psychology of Stoicism and Buddhism. It’s been lingering in drafts for a few weeks because I recognized wisdom in the quote, even though it’s easy to dismiss it out of hand. Marian’s post yesterday brought it to mind again. The take-home lesson for me is that it’s easy to fixate on problems and make them mythical challenges so great that we don’t even try to tackle them, preferring instead to talk about how imposing they are, or why we can’t do this or that…instead of looking for what we can do. This kind of thinking comes a lot in disaster readiness or active self-protection: we must train ourselves to look for what we can do.

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Tuesday trifecta: hacking, prepping, and making shine

I’ve been dog & cat-sitting away from my computer since last week, and without a TV or computer to distract me I’ve been doing that ‘reading’ thing.

First up, I read Just in Case, a prepping-for-newbies book the library acquired right after the hurricane hit, in the forlorn hope that some responsible citizen would want to better brace themselves for The Next Time. No such luck, as I’m the first person to have checked it out. April is typically when Alabama receives its worst and most tornadoes, so I’m trying to get things squared away on that front, preparing for power losses and the like. After an introductory section on the why-and-wherefores of disaster readiness, the author devotes succeeding chapters to separate threats (power loss, extreme cold, fire, pandemic, etc) before wrapping up with skills which are valuable in any scenario. The pandemic section was interesting, as the author predicts runs on supplies and warns readers against relying on surgical or painters’ masks, which will not block something as small as virus. Although my reference in the future will remain When Technology Fails, I like this book as one for the general public.

Next up, Rogue Code by Mark Russonovich. In years past I’ve read Russonovich’s Zero Hour and Trojan Horse, part of the same series. Each is a standalone technical thriller in which a retired CIA cybersecurity specialist, Jeff Aiken, is hired to investigate threats to secure networks and the internet as a whole In Rogue Code, Aiken and his partner are hired to check the NASDAQ’s servers for any potential issues, as the IPO for a facebook-killer is looming and the powers that be want no problems. Not only is there evidence of tampering, but when the perps catch on that their work is being examined, they frame Jeff for the theft of millions and force him to shelter from an SEC cop with all the tact of a nuclear missile Russonovich typically mixes in a little action into these books to make them genuine thrillers, and not just prolong scenes of people sitting at desks typing furiously or pondering lines of code, looking for traces of nefarious goings-on. Although Russonovich typically makes his villains interesting, here only their backgrounds in the Brazilian cartel standout: both the chefe and his main mook are your standard-issue evil apes, driven for money, power, and sex. Speaking of which, there are several unexpected scenes of sexual abuse in the novel, just to make sure we don’t start rooting for the cartel which is robbing Wall Street blind. Although I enjoyed the novel well enough, it gets into the weeds of both high finance and code analysis, so it’s not light reading by any means.

I’ve also recently finished Travels with Foxfire, a motley collection of interviews, recipes, folk histories, and hunting stories from southern Appalachia. It’s a buffet of Appalachian culture, you might say: a chapter on the moonshine-running origins of NASCAR is followed by tales of old bear hunts, and then recipes of so-and-so’s old-fashioned country cooking followed up by a history of Appalachian folk music — “Old Time” music, not bluegrass or country. It’s like a Rick Bragg notebook, almost, with lots of the raw material of the kind that one sees worked into his own books. There’s a little witticism on the back of Log Cabin Pioneers, a similar work I’ll be reading soon enough, that says “For them’s that likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like”. It’s absurd, but true when applied to a book like this: it has immense appeal for those interested in Appalachian culture, who don’t need a central narrative to guide them through the whole thing. I was particularly interested in the old-time music, and had no idea that popular singers of the mid-20th century had adopted several folk tunes and turned them into copyrighted commercial hits, from Bob Dylan to the Kingston Trio. I’m really looking forward to looking for recordings by some of the artists mentioned here, especially Hedwig “Hedy” West, who used folk songs as her ammunition against the Johnson administration.

Later on I’ll have comments for Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, and will begin going through Purgatory. I’m also currently reading Rebekah by Orson Scott Card: apparently the author of Ender’s Game also did a series of historical novels based on women from the Bible. That seemed worth a look-see, and I’ve been unexpectedly snared by the novel’s humor and lead character. I don’t know any stories or traditions associated with her character other than “Wife of Isaac, mom of Esau and Jacob”.

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