"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, August 30, 2010


In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. (Beowulf 710-11)
This has got to be one of the best lines from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. One can almost see a huge misshapen form lurching across the cold moor; the wafting mist now concealing, now half revealing the monstrous descendant of banished Cain.

Who is Grendel? Grendel is the rapacious envy of man given living shape. He cannot stand the happiness of others in the mead-hall. If he cannot share it, he must destroy it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lord and Thane

The relationship of the Christian to Christ is often portrayed as that of a servant to a master. The parallel is good and true, but for those who find the metaphor of slaves either stale or repellent, consider this description of old Germanic kings and their followers taken from The Norton Anthology of English Literature:
When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes and to reward them richly for their valor; a good king, one like Hrothgar or Beowulf, is referred to by such poetic epithets as “ring-giver” and as the “helmet” and “shield” of his people (25).

Abrams, M.H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors 7th. ed. W.W.Norton and Co. 2001

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What To Do With Your Life

Recalling the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia is the fictional journey of 3 young travelers on a quest to find happiness. Growing up in the sheltered “Happy Valley,” prince Rasselas, his sister Nekayah, and a maid, tunnel out of the idle luxury of the valley to look for meaning and happiness in the world outside. Everywhere they question those they meet if their profession and “choice of life” have made them happy. Invariably, the answer is no. Those with power are hated and deposed, those without power are abused; those with money have enemies, those without money are without; those with learning have wasted their time, “in the attainment of sciences which can, for the most part, be but remotely useful to mankind” (113), those without learning are rude and discontent.

It would seem upon first sight that Johnson is saying: “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Even the great pyramids that Rasselas and the princess visit are a testament to the futility of earthly achievement. According to the siblings' guide:

“I consider this mighty structure as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments.... Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratification, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!” (78).

This echoes Ecclesiastes where Solomon says: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.... Yet... everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:4,11).

Yet Johnson's narrative, like Ecclesiastes, is not without hope. Both enjoin us to enjoy each moment as much as possible and in the end both peer forward toward a dimly seen future significance. Near the end of the book, princess Nekayah puts it this way: “'To me,' said the princess, 'the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity'” (122). Ecclesiastes comes to a similar conclusion: “remember your Creator... Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken” (Eccl. 12:6).

Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The World's Classics-Oxford University Press. 1988

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Walking Into Chaos

Here is a copy of my letter to the editor of the Record Searchlight published last Sunday.

Consider the reasoning behind Judge Walker's ruling on gay marriage: his ruling argues that morality can no longer be the basis of our legal system. But if the moral law—what philosophers and the authors of the Constitution called “natural law”—is no longer the basis of society's laws, what is? The will of the majority? Clearly not, since Walker overturned the vote of the majority. There is only one other option: the will of a small elite like Walker who get to dictate what we can and cannot do on an ever-changing basis. Is any current law now exempt from challenge? Laws against polygamy, prostitution, animal cruelty, destroying the environment—even the idea at the heart of secular government: preserving the existence of human society—are all based on a standard of right and wrong. Recognition of a supreme moral law is the only rational anchor for society's laws.