Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis

On this day in 1963, Clive Staples Lewis died.  Some of us now observe November 22nd as the Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis.  Here is one of my favorite passages from Lewis: 

“To be frank, I have no pleasure in looking forward to a meeting between humanity and any alien rational species. I observe how the white man has hitherto treated the black, and how, even among civilized men, the stronger have treated the weaker. If we encounter in the depth of space a race, however innocent and amiable, which is technologically weaker than ourselves, I do not doubt that the same revolting story will be repeated. We shall enslave, deceive, exploit or exterminate; at the very least we shall corrupt it with our vices and infect it with our diseases. We are not yet fit to visit other worlds. We have filled our own with massacre, torture, syphilis, famine, dust bowls and all that is hideous to ear or eye. Must we go on to infect new realms? ...It was in part these reflections that first moved me to make my own small contributions to science fiction. In those days writers in the genre almost automatically represented the inhabitants of other worlds as monsters and the terrestrial invaders as good….The same problem, by the way, is beginning to threaten us as regards the dolphins. I don’t think it has yet been proved that they are rational. But if they are, we have no more right to enslave them than to enslave our fellow-men. And some of us will continue to say this, but we shall be mocked.”
--C.S. Lewis, “The Seeing Eye,” in Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 173-4.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

South Fork, Eagle River

After breakfast we put sack lunches in the cooler and threw our backpacks in the fifteen-passenger van. Half an hour later we were piling out at the state park on the South Fork of the Eagle River.

The houses here are ugly. Taken on their own, any one of them is a beautiful building. Plainly this is spendy real estate in God’s country. But the houses look like they were lifted from the pages of some little-boxes-full-of-ticky-tacky architectural lust propaganda and carpet-bombed on the hillside, then allowed to remain wherever they fell. There is no order, no sense that the houses were built for the place. Every one of them is a garish, angular excrescence on the opposite hillside. No doubt their inmates would disagree with my assessment; they only see the houses up close, and from the inside. They must have no idea how out of place their unnatural rectangles look against the sweeping slope of the Chugach Range. No doubt, when you’re on the other side of those big plates of glass, gazing over here at the state park over your morning K-cup, the view is precious. But when you’re in the state park, looking back, there is nothing on the opposite hillside to love. Over here, there is only regret that these people believed that you could buy both the land and the landscape.

It’s about three miles’ hike in to first bridge in state park. A fairly easy up-and-down walk. It’s raining. Spitting, really, what they call chipichipi in Guatemala, a constant drizzle. The sky is a palette of cottony grays that have lowered themselves onto the mountaintops. There is a clear line below which the mountains are visible. Above it, clouds roll and shift.

I shiver a little in my heavy raincoat and think about putting on my rain pants, but I know I’ll be too hot if I do. Some of my students are wearing shorts.

At the footbridge we sit and eat our lunches. The university has packed us red delicious apples (a mendacious name), bags of honey Dijon potato chips, and turkey sandwiches with lettuce and onions. It’s not good turkey, but no one cares. This is a lovely place. We have other food in this place.

The river is only fifteen feet wide here, and it is the color of chalk, like diluted Milk of Magnesia. Taking off my shoes, I wade in.  Immediately my feet start to ache with cold. Turning over a stone, I look at its underside.  The gray water drips off and a tiny larva wriggles to get out of the light. It's too small to identify it, maybe a miniscule stonefly.  A huge blue dragonfly cruises over the river, darting past me.

There are lots of wildflowers up here. One of my students is on the ground with her laminated guidebook, puzzling over one specimen. I've been carrying these guides everywhere, but they're only helpful for about seventy-five percent of the common stuff. There's just too much life here to get it all in a book.

The flowers grow in so many colors, so many strategies for getting the scarce pollinators' attention in the brief summer. Yellows, purples, and blues predominate. The guidebook warns me about several of the purples: DO NOT EAT THIS! Some of them are poisonous.  So are a few of the yellows. This is a beautiful place, but it's also a harsh place, and life clings to the edge. Poison is one good way not to get eaten, I suppose. Looking up the mountain, the trees give way to shrubs a hundred yards above us.  A hundred yards more and there's only grass.  Above that, I can only see rock.

Some of these plants have another strategy: rather than avoiding getting eaten, they invite it. Berries are the way some plants make use of animals to carry their seeds to new places.  Bear scat, full of seeds, is all along the trails here.  Each mound is a nursery where some new plant may grow in the fertile dung.

There is a kind of berry like a blueberry that grows on something that looks like a mix between evergreens and moss, only a few inches high.  Some people call it "mossberry," appropriately.  Some locals call it a blackberry.  Matt tells us they're crowberries, as he gathers a handful. He eats some and then the students tentatively pick and eat some too.

We spend three hours there at the bridge, observing. There's so much to see.  Some of us write, some draw, some stare at the peaks that surround us.  A few doze off.  I get out my watercolors and try to paint the landscape, but I'm quickly frustrated. There are so many greens and grays and blues, and I'm no good at mixing colors.  I keep painting anyway.  I can at least try to get the shapes right, I think, but I'm wrong about that, too.  The mountains are stacked up in layers, and the lines look clean and clear at first, but when I try to focus on them they blur into one another.  The hanging glacier at the end of the valley looms over us, silent and white and yet so eloquent.  The glaciers are what made all of this, and even though they have retreated, the river runs with their tillage, the plants grow in their finely ground dust, the smooth slopes were ground smooth by millennia of ice.

Upstream, Brenden hooks his first-ever dolly varden. This is his first fish in Alaska. He is positively glowing with delight. He cradles it in his hand and then quickly returns it to the water pausing only to admire this vibrant glacial relic of a char.  It too depends on the glacier.

The temperature is constantly shifting as the sun comes in and out of the clouds. Each part of the valley takes its turn being illuminated: the river shines like silver; the mountainside glows bright green and the rocks and bushes above the tree line cast sharp shadows; high in the valley small glaciers are bright ribbons streaking the blue granite. The clouds push the sunlight in ribbons across the valley. When we are suddenly in the light, we are warm.

After a few hours we walk back to the car. No one wants to go. For a while we drive in luminous silence.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Steinbeck on Overfishing

"In about an hour we came to the Japanese fishing fleet.  There were six ships doing the actual dredging while a large mother ship of at least 10,000 tons stood farther offshore at anchor. THe dredge boats themselves were large, 150- to 175 feet, probably about 600 tons. There were twelve boats in the combined fleet including the mother ship, and they were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well.  They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.  Any animal wich escaped must have been very fast indeed, for not even the sharks got away.  Why the Mexican government should have permitted the complete destruction of a valuable food supply is one of those mysteries which have their ramifications possibly back in pockets it is not well to look into."
John Steinbeck, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez. (Penguin, 1995, p. 205)  Emphasis added. Feel free to substitute the name of any other coastal government for the word "Mexican."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What Thucydides Can Teach Us About Imperial Overreach

My latest article, co-authored with John Kaag.  Here's a sample:
"As we dwell in our golden, Athenian age of military and economic might, perhaps we should learn another lesson from the ancients as well. Aristotle tells us that a virtuous soul is not a soul without fear, but one that fears only the right things; and it is not moved by fear, because it tempers it with wisdom. In the end, the loss of virtue may be more dire than the loss of geopolitical prominence."
You can read it all here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is Thinking Real? Peirce On Neuro-Determinism

"Tell me, upon sufficient authority, that all cerebration depends upon movements of neurites that strictly obey certain physical laws, and that thus all expressions of thought, both external and internal, receive a physical explanation, and I shall be ready to believe you. But if you go on to say that this explodes the theory that my neighbour and myself are governed by reason, and are thinking beings, I must frankly say that it will not give me a high opinion of your intelligence."

Charles Sanders Peirce, "A Neglected Argument For The Reality Of God."

A Commercial Company Becomes A Church...And Then A Nation

“When the king and High Church party under Archbishop Laud became masters of the Church of England, many Puritan leaders wished to emigrate. They had property, social position, and an independent spirit. They did not wish to go out to Massachusetts Bay as mere vassals of a company in London. Moreover, they hoped to set up the kind of Church government they liked. Therefore, the principal Puritans of the company simply bought up all its stock, took the charter, and sailed with it to America. A commercial company was thus converted into a self-governing colony—the colony of Massachusetts Bay.”
Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States. (New York: The Modern Library, 1956) p.11

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Church Organs and Church Music

Recently I had the good fortune to hear an organ concert in Westminster Abbey.  Not long afterwards I heard someone asking whether churches should get rid of their old organs.  The question is a reasonable one, since organs are expensive to maintain, nigh impossible to move, and not many people can play them well.  To those charges we should add the charge that organs are old-fashioned, and we are not.

I happen to love organ music, so that's one reason why I think we shouldn't get rid of the organs that remain in our churches. But there is at least one more important reason to think carefully about replacing them.  Sometimes organs don't fit well with the buildings they are in, as though the organ was purchased on its own merits and not for the way it matched the acoustics of the building that holds it.  In those cases, I don't see the loss if they're removed.  

But this is a failing of architecture and economics, not just of music. The problem in that case is far greater than the sin of not being contemporary.  An organ that does not match the church, or a church that is not made to be acoustically beautiful - both of these are failures, the kind of failure that comes from people who think that design and aesthetics are luxuries.  But design is never neutral; it always helps or hurts. Efficiencies and economics can be the enemies of accomplishing the most worthwhile ends.

Here's what Westminster Abbey reminded me of: a well-built organ is not just an instrument; it is a part of the edifice itself. Specifically, it is the part that turns the whole edifice into a musical instrument.  When the organ at Westminster is being played, it is not just a keyboard or pipes that are being played, but the whole building. Every bit of the building resounds.  The music is not an isolated event anymore; the notes played and the place in which they are played have merged, and each reaches out to affirm the other.  A good organ turns a church into a musical instrument.

Too often churches think of aesthetics last, if at all, or refuse to make aesthetics part of their theology.  This is a huge mistake.  The prophets describe the architectural adornments of the Ark and the Tabernacle and the Temple, giving those aesthetical elements a permanent place in Jewish and Christian canonical scripture.  Similarly, the scriptures are full of songs and poems that - one could argue - are unnecessary to salvation. As Scott Parsons and I have argued, art and the sacred belong together. Our faith is not a matter of mere talk; sometimes what must be articulated cannot be said in words, but needs the smell of incense, the ringing of a sanctus bell, the deep bellow of a pipe organ, the beauty of light well-captured in glass or terrazzo.

If you're not sure of what I mean, listen to Árstí∂ir sing the medieval hymn Heyr himna smi∂ur -- in a train station.  Can you imagine that being sung in a church with similar acoustics?  Here's what I love about the video: when they sing that beautiful old song, everyone around them stops to listen.  The beauty of the song is arresting, especially when it is paired with the building.  What keeps us from dreaming of building churches, writing music, and designing instruments that could similarly arrest us?