White Coat Hypertension

The things we do for $25 are sometimes painful.  Perhaps I should begin at the beginning.  Some weeks ago, my company sent out an announcement that there would be health checks in the middle of August, and along with it came a lot of information for self-disclosure about help, including sleeping and eating habits, one’s weight and one’s pre-existing conditions and the medication one was taking and so on and so forth.  Being a person of a complicated health history [1], it took me near half an hour to fill out the various online forms, some of which required some explanation.  After it was done, I received a reminder that I had an appointment this morning at 11:15AM for my health screening.  During the most of the time since then I had no occasion to think about it, except there were people who came to our office in the break room while I was at lunch encouraging people to sign up, which was mostly irrelevant to me because I already had, and a few calls within our department to save that $25 a paycheck that was promised for our taking the health screening.  The only other note that drew my attention was that I had to fast for twelve hours before the check-in.

So it was that after finding myself unable to spot all of the signs leading to the conference room (one of only about three conference rooms on the same floor of the office) I eventually made it to the check-in room a couple of minutes before my appointment was scheduled.  I checked over the form and made some corrections and initialed and signed that it was okay for the nurse there to draw blood.  Then the fun began.  My blood pressure was taken and the numbers were a bit high–something around 167 over 135 or so, and so the nurse then moved to the drawing of the blood.  I first put up my sleeve so that she could try to draw blood from the inside of my left arm at the elbow joint, but no vein was prominent enough for her to draw.  So she tried my right arm and daubed and poked and drew, wondering out loud why it was so hard to draw blood from my vein.  All the while I chattered on idiotically about nosebleeds and white coat hypertension and having anemic relatives and not really giving blood at all.  Eventually the nurse was able to draw enough blood for two vials with my last name on them for some kind of blood test, and then she tested my blood pressure again and it was a more reasonable 135 over 87 or something like that, not great blood pressure mind you, but at least good enough not to trigger some kind of dire health intervention.

So, it is now several hours after the check-up, time for dinner in fact.  My right arm still hurts from where the blood was drawn and the bandage is still over the wound.  Who knows what will be found from a look at my blood.  Perhaps my uric acid levels will be at their usual high level.  Perhaps they will find something else of interest.  I will have to wait and see.  It is curious, though, that the draw for the check-in was a substantial savings on health care.  What sort of savings do companies have for taking substantial amounts of blood that they can then pass these savings on to employees?  What is it that they are looking for?  Given the detail of the assessment and the promise that personal health information will not be shared with the company–not that I am shy about discussing such matters myself–it is a bit unclear what the incentive is for the company I work for to offer this service for free.  People do not tend to do something without a reason, after all, and one wonders what that reason is.

And why is it that I struggle with white coat hypertension?  There are at least a few reasons, and it is likely that as is the case often my response is somewhat overdetermined.  For starters, it is sufficient to note that as an extremely anxious person dealing with medical professionals is automatically going to be a situation fraught with a great deal of concern.  This is increased even more given the fact that my interactions with medical professionals have seldom been good–like Ahab dealing with the prophets of God, my conversations with medical professionals has invariably involved bad news of one kind or another.  A few examples will suffice.  The day I went to the doctor’s office for my first gout attack I got a random and uncomfortable check for testicular cancer, got my first case of white coat hypertension, and ended up being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depression.  It was a bad day, shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday.  A few years later I had a few concerns and went to my ENT, who commented on the need to cauterize my nose, was surprised that my tinnitis was related to high-frequency hearing loss in my left ear likely due to the viola, and found out that I had a bactroban-resistant fungus residing in my nose that still causes trouble there all these years later.  Is it any wonder that even with the lure of more money in my pocket every paycheck–no small lure–that I would be less than enthusiastic about a health screening?

[1] See, for example:







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Why Aren’t They In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: Seals And Crofts

Growing up as a child I was at least a little bit familiar with Seals and Crofts because I listened to a lot of adult contemporary music [1], but because “Summer Breeze” was the one song I recognized as theirs, I thought of them as being one-hit wonders.  To be sure, the lyrics to that one particular song were odd and esoteric, but it was not until I recognized other songs by theirs and did a bit of research about the larger cultural and religious context of their music that I realized that this easy listening group was far more important than they might appear to many people at first glance.  Although they are clearly not the most well-known band when it comes to releasing a lot of hit singles, they are a band that has a worthy track record of album sales and a massive religious influence in an untraditional way that is worthy of recognition.  If there were a Soft Rock Hall of Fame or Yacht Rock Hall Fame, they would be very early inductees without a question, but as Adult Contemporary music has not fared very well with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I feel it necessary to defend their case myself, even if this is one of the more obscure cases I have dealt with.

The Influence Of Seals And Crofts

Starting their recording career in the late 1960’s and coming to popularity in the early 1970’s, Seals & Crofts were instrumental in helping set up the laid back singer-songwriter style that would define the soft rock of the 1970’s and 1980’s and that remains played frequently on easy listening radio.  Their particular approach would help blaze a trail as the yacht rock and marina rock that would become a major cultural force for the better part of a decade and a half.  As pioneers within a genre of music, they deserve some recognition on those grounds alone.  Additionally, Seals and Crofts were part of a multi-generational family group of musicians, which included England Dan (the brother of the Seals of Seals and Croft) and John Ford Coley as well as the Humming Birds.  On top of all of this, the band was vital is serving as a public face of the obscure Baha’i faith, for which they served with a sense of missionary zeal, even using their concerts as opportunities for spreading their faith.  That is the sort of broad cultural influence that deserves recognition, even apart from their own lasting musical contributions.

Why Seals And Crofts Deserve To Be In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Having examined the larger cultural influence of Seals And Crofts in terms of their genre, their large-scale family influence, and their unconventional religious influence within the world of music, it is time to look at the music of the band itself.  This music has served the test of time–“Summer Breeze,” despite only hitting #6 on the Hot 100, remains far better known and better regarded today than many hits that placed higher on the charts.  The same is true for their #6 hit “Diamond Girl.”  They also had a third #6 hit with “Get Closer,” as well as top 20 hits in “Hummingbird,” “I’ll Play For You,” and “You’re The Love,” and just missing the top 20 with “We May Never Pass This Way (Again).”  Their album sales show a long string of consistent sales and popularity that was even able to sell gold albums without any top 40 hits on them (“Unborn Child,” for example).  Over the course of the 70’s they had two platinum albums and four gold albums, showing a consistency that belies any thoughts of their being a one-hit wonder or one-album wonder [2].  This is a band that had consistent appeal and that remains important even today, which makes it odd that they are not among the singer-songwriters considered worthy of of Rock & Roll Hall induction today.

Why Seals And Crofts Are Not In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Given the fact that soft rock is not well regarded critically speaking, it is not too surprising that Seals And Crofts have never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  It may be disappointing given their larger cultural importance, but it is not surprising.  What is surprising is that given their family legacy, their foundational role in paving the way for yacht rock acts, and their evangelism for the Baha’i religion they are not a more controversial music act that draws attention to themselves.  With songs that remain mainstays of easy listening radio, this is a band that people should think of far more often when it comes to acts that are snubbed by Cleveland than is the case at present.

Verdict:  Put them in.  They might as well be trailblazers in increasing the reputation of soft rock as they were in giving soft rock acts a place on the radio, and as particularly successful emissaries of their faith in the larger world of music and culture they deserve some appreciation as well.

[1] See, for example:











[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seals_and_Crofts

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Book Review: The Civil War Notebook Of Daniel Chisholm

The Civil War Notebook Of Daniel Chisholm:  A Chronicle Of Daily Life In The Union Army 1864-1865, edited by W. Springer Menge and J. August Shimrak

As an undergraduate student I was required to read a diary of a German Napoleonic soldier that had been found in Kansas.  The experience was a worthwhile one, in that it showed me that there can be a great deal of importance in the writing of obscure people like myself who happen to be observers and participants in history.  This book is certainly not elite history, but is rather a complicated set of writing included in the notebook of a Uniontown, Pennsylvania born and bred Civil War veteran who survived into the 20th century.  As someone with a great interest in diaries [1] and letters, this book was definitely a worthwhile one, as it gave a picture of how the war was like for greenhorns who showed up too late for the more gentle seasoning of the beginning of the war and got caught up in the meat grinder of the Overland Campaign of 1864.  It is more than a bit of a miracle that all three of the authors of these particular materials survived until the end of the war.  At any rate, it provides a compelling story of the end of the Civil War.

This book, at about 200 pages, is divided into two sections based on the materials from Mr. Chisholm’s diary that was transcribed into this book.  The first half of this book or so is made up of the diary of a noncommissioned officer from the same unit, Samuel Clear.  At first, the reader will likely be puzzled as to why Chisholm did this, rather than write his own diary, but Clear’s writing is pretty compelling.   The author/compiler and his brother appear to have joined the army for the bounties, but Clear showed a stronger sense of idealism.  The diary itself gives a soldier’s eye look at the war, without an understanding of the larger strategies, and gives some striking insight into conditions in the Overland Campaign as well as the siege of Petersburg, including the forgotten battle of Ream’s Station, which more or less ended the career of the II Corps as an attacking force.  The reason this diary is included becomes more plain when one looks at the second half of the book, which contains the letters of Daniel Chisholm and his brother Alex.  Daniel, it turns out, spent months convalescing from a serious leg wound that stubbornly refused to heal, and so he missed out on much of the ‘glory’ of the successful end of the war and seems to have wanted to include an account from a friendly source.

It is likely that many readers will find this book to be a friendly source about the end of the Civil War.  One gets a sense of the bravery of soldiers, their concerns for money and honor, and their desire to be remembered and also to preserve the memory of their fellow soldiers.  The supplementary information at the end of the book shows just how destructive war was for the unit, with so many killed and wounded and the leader of their unit having sacrificed his health for the Union and dying shortly after the war clothed.  A few of the unit ended up being prisoners and dying in Plymouth, North Carolina, which appears to have been a forgotten prisoner of war camp.  The diary hints at the larger stories that involved the experiences of warfare, and shows a group of soldiers of considerable valor and skill even if many of them were novices at warfare and could not have been prepared for the horrors they experienced in 1864 and early 1865.  Sometimes it is good to look at how war is experienced by the ordinary soldier rather than from the view of the larger tactics and strategies where everything makes more sense.  Most of us, after all, live under the fog of war.

[1] See, for example:






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Book Review: The Railroads Of The Confederacy

The Railroads Of The Confederacy, by Robert C. Black III

I love a book with a happy ending, although given the difference between the depth of coverage about the first year of the Civil War and the remaining three, and the author’s continual reference to a nonexistent “War Between The States,” the author and I have a lot we do not agree on.  While we will get to this in due time, I would like to say that despite the massive disagreements on perspective and worldview that the author and I have, that I appreciated this book for a few reasons.  For one, the author is immensely witty, and that is something I always enjoy [1].  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that the author has the winsome tone of a Dennis Showalter [2], which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.  Additionally, the author spends a lot of time talking in detail about railroads in the Confederacy and their vital importance with regards to the operation of Confederate armies as well as the vital matter of logistics [3].  Anyone who can write authoritatively on such maters as operations and logistics is definitely someone I want to read, and this book proves to be far less dry of a book than any reader had a write to expect, even if the author’s worldview leaves a lot to be desired.

In 22 chapters that cover 300 or so pages, the author takes a comprehensive look at the railroads of the Confederacy that covers the course of the Civil War.  If you’re a fan of the Confederacy, it makes for grim reading.  The author is clearly a master of a very technical sort of prosography, reading various reports and paperwork related to trains and stories about trainwrecks as well as making a comparative analysis of train schedules to demonstrate how a shortage of fuel lengthened the time of travel as the war went on.  Here is quantitative history of the best kind, using data to draw sound conclusions based on firm evidence and not mere prejudice.  The data tells the sort of story that one would expect–Southern states and citizens were enthusiastic backers of various rail projects but most of them were local and not part of a larger, coherent and coordinate system.  As a result, when the war came, local and provincial interests and the inefficiencies of the system had disastrous consequences for a nation that had no alternative to the railroads for the large-scale transshipment of food and soldiers.

Ultimately, I recommend this book wholeheartedly despite substantial disagreement with the author.  In the main, the entertainment value of the author’s wit, even if he carries his rhetoric to extreme, for example, concerning Sherman’s destructiveness, is alone worth the time spent to read this book.  The information value concerning the often-neglected relationship between railroads and the Confederate war effort is itself of considerable value.  That said, this recommendation comes with a large caveat, and that is that I do not endorse two seemingly contradictory aspects of the author’s perspective.  For one, the author appears to be somewhat of a booster of Confederate independence, and that is not a cause I support at all.  Second, the author is hostile to the culture of consensus that required a slow and incomplete process of dealing with state and local interests and that remains a particularly American aspect of politics.  The author supports the unrestrained and “efficient” use of centralized government power, something I view with a great deal of horror and disgust.  If your political views are remotely close to mine in opposing both the tyrannical power of the rebellious lords of the lash as well as of a corrupt, centralized state, you will find much to criticize in the author’s approach.  Even so, this is a well-done history.

[1] The following passage may be taken as representative concerning the author’s wit:

“When Sim’s very real abilities are considered, it seems strange that he has become so shadowy a figure.  Even among the quiet squares of Savannah he has been almost forgotten.  He was a rather large, homely man, of medium complexion, with heavy features, yet his personality must have been pleasing.  Between the lines of his correspondence we glimpse an active, gregarious person, quick, intelligent, and much given to talk in the easy manner of mid-Georgia.  All things considered, F.W. Sims represented the administrative branch of the Confederate Army at its best (167).”

[2] See, for example:



[3] See, for example:





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Mysteries Of The Bible: Did Paul Visit The Third Heaven?

Last night, as I was chatting with a close friend of mine who requests many of my entries, she made a comment that her brother-in-law believed that Paul had traveled in a vision to the third heaven.  I replied that this was almost certainly the case, and moreover was something that was widely understood.  At least I thought that this was something that was widely understood, and the fact that it was not as widely understood as I thought suggests that it would be an issue worth exploring.  After all, the explanation of how it was that we can be fairly confident that Paul went to the third heaven–that is, to God’s throne–and heard things that it is not permissible to utter is useful in better understanding quite a few aspects of the Bible, especially as far as the writing of the New Testament is concerned.

The passage in question that discusses Paul’s supposed vision of the third heaven is 2 Corinthians 12:1-11, which reads:  “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.  And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.  Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.  For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.  And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.”

The overarching theme of this passage is boasting, and from beginning to end Paul shows himself deeply concerned with the subject.  He begins by saying that it is not profitable for him to boast and closes the relevant passage by saying that he has become a fool in boasting because he was compelled to do so by his audience.  I have heard it said in sermons, and it seems a reasonable surmise, that Paul had a special problem with boasting.  Be that as it may, Paul says something truly dramatic here and couches it as if he was saying it about someone else.  He says, in effect, that he is not going to boast about himself but he is going to boast about someone who was given this amazing vision about the third heaven, even if he doesn’t know whether he was taken in the flesh or merely in a vision, and then after saying this he comments that lest he, Paul, be exalted above measure, he was plagued with a mysterious thorn in the flesh–another mystery from this passage.  Obviously, for God to be concerned that Paul would be exalted above measure, Paul was the one who saw the vision, and this concern about being exalted above measure would also tie in to Paul’s concern not to boast and his irritation that in order to defend the legitimacy of his own apostolic mission that he would need to boast about the vision that he had been given.

In our age, we might consider this to be false modesty.  Yet Paul’s indirect and modest approach was one that was quite common among the writers of scripture, and is is an approach that our age would do well to emulate.  For example, the two-part volume of Luke-Acts never once includes the name of the author, which can be determined through Luke’s subtle use of the first person plural in those passages where he was an eyewitness and a member of Paul’s missionary party and through a process of elimination when Paul’s traveling companions as recorded in his epistles is taken into account.  Similarly, the apostle John refers to himself as the apostle Jesus loved or some other related term in his gospel, leaving process of elimination as the only way to be confident that John in fact was the writer of the epistle.  The case is the most dramatic, possibly, when we look at the gospel of Mark.  During the dramatic arrest scene at the Garden of Gethsemane towards the end of the epistle, Mark remarks about a young man who fled naked after having curiously gone to the place where Jesus and His disciples were meeting.  In all such cases there is a desire to tell the truth, especially where one was an eyewitness or participant, without being greatly concerned with personal glory.  In our own age of marketing and spin and puffery, the modesty of the early Christian apostles and other leaders is an example we would do well to copy ourselves.

Another area of mystery here is that Paul was unsure of whether he was caught up in the body or was merely having a vision.  The Spirit is said in the Bible to do both.  John, for example, when he was given a vision of the third heaven, was permitted (indeed, commanded) to write about what he saw, which became the Book of Revelation.  Here we are made aware that he saw a series of visions about the Day of the Lord while his body remained in exile on the island of Patmos.  On the other hand, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch refers to Philip being caught up in the spirit with his body being physically moved as a result for some considerable distance.  Paul himself was not told, apparently, whether the travel was in the mind or was a bodily one, although that matters little as the message was sent.

What are the implications of Paul’s statement of traveling to the third heaven?  These are at least less mysterious than the visions and the material that he heard but was not permitted to repeat or share.  Although other cosmologies posit seven or nine heavens, among various other numbers, depending on whether we are looking at WB shows or Dante’s Paradise, the Bible considers there to be three heavens.  The first heaven is our own atmosphere, where Elijah was taken up in that famous chariot of his [1].  The second heaven is outer space, the home of stars and planets and comets and asteroids and black holes and quasars and other possibly still more exotic phenomena.  Beyond outer space is the third heaven, the realm of God’s throne, a realm that mankind cannot reach even should we master the immense difficulties of interstellar travel.  Obviously, therefore, if we can barely leave the neighborhood of our planet without nearly impossible travel times, for someone to travel to the third heaven in any way would require divine assistance.  Paul was certainly grateful for this vision, even if he appears more than a little bit embarrassed that he felt compelled by the suspicion and mistrust of the brethren of Corinth to mention it in the first place.  Would we be so reluctant to boast if we were in his place?

[1] See, for example:







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Book Review: Poems And Readings For Funerals And Memorials

Poems And Readings For Funerals And Memorials, compiled by Luisa Moncada

Just as I read a collection of poems for weddings and civil partnerships, at the same time as a companion volume I read the collection of poems and readings for funerals and memorials.  In many ways, although weddings look forward to new life and funerals and memorials look backward on a life lived and forward often with a hope of the life to come, the books are more similar than one might imagine.  As someone who is no stranger to musing about death [1], this book certainly encouraged more melancholy reflections on life and it was interesting to see how the compiler made sense of various conceptions of death and afterlife and the love felt by the living for the dead in these readings.  That is not to say that I agree with all of the sentiments expressed here–I do not, specially among those readings that presuppose an imaginary soul–but at least the readings capture a great deal of the collection of thoughts and feelings that people have about death and the dead.  Those who use this book, of course, will be responsible for selecting among the readings those that most apply to their own situation and their own feelings and indeed their own beliefs.

In terms of its contents, this book is organized much like its companion volume in being alphabetically organized by author except for biblical passages which are organized by book.  Again, as with the previous volume, this book is one that can be used as a resource but is not going to be the source of one’s material.  One is going to have to create or borrow a template for giving a funeral or performing a memorial, although this book will certainly add material if one finds a great deal of use.  Depending on one’s views about death and one’s relationship to the dead person, different readings will make more sense to use than others.  Likewise, some people themselves had such marked ways of living life that some readings will apply to them more than others.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of materials, since it comes in at under 200 pages.  Even so, much of this is material I have already read, and a great deal of it was material that reflects my own thoughts about death and dying.

So, what kind of reader is going to get a lot out of this book?  Well, if you are working on a talk involving death, and you want to give your talk a strong sense of biblical or classical allusions, this book is a solid one to go to.  At least a few of the poems included on here are identical to selections included in this same publisher’s poems and readings for weddings and partnership collection, which made for an odd tonal shift.  Additionally, it is clear that some of the readings were included because certain people like Oprah Winfrey are popular for the moment even if their thoughts and writings are not likely to long endure.  Despite the presence of some throwaway material, though, there is enough here for a solid read, and if you view it for what it is and don’t expect too much out of it, there is a great deal that a reader can use from this book.  This is a very basic book, and not one that really rewards straight through reading, but as a compendium of materials about death and dying and speculations on the afterlife, this is certainly a useful read for those who have the reason to read it.

[1] See, for example:







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Book Review: Poems And Readings For Weddings And Civil Partnerships

Poems and Readings For Weddings And Civil Partnerships, compiled by A. Vasudevan

This is an interesting collection of poetic materials relating to romantic love and the hopes and expectations for marriage.  I happen to know people who despite not having a lot of foundation in the Bible or any other religious text have found themselves being registered clergy, and I must admit that I am not.  This is not a book aimed at me, directly, because I am not engaged in the business of officiating weddings or civil partnerships–the rules are very different–but it definitely made for an interesting read.  It may be for somewhat perverse reasons that a man as awkwardly single as I am reads about marriage to the extent that I do [1], but regardless of the reason I found this book interesting from the point of view of someone giving a ceremony.  These readings are not organized in a fashion that someone would be able to use in a plug and play fashion.  Rather, someone using this book is going to have to do a large amount of effort to get a smooth ceremony out of these reasons.  That may not be a bad thing.

This book is organized very simply in being alphabetically organized by author, except for Bible citations which are organized alphabetically by their book.  This is great, for example, if you are looking for all of the Kahlil Gibran or Pablo Neruda poems, as there are many of those, but it can be a bit jarring in tone to read some of the writings in the order in which they are included, as the tone jumps from mystical to scriptural to somewhat casual and flippant from one writer to the next.  That said, though, there is a lot to appreciate here.  A lot of these readings are enjoyable to read, and while I could quibble a bit about the translated used for the Bible verses, the materials really do a good job at showing the diverse nature of the hopes and concerns of people entering into marriage.  This is certainly something worth thinking about, and the book, if used well, is certainly one that can provide someone officiating a marriage with a great deal of worthwhile insight.  One would do well to know what kind of people one is working with, as grooms and especially brides like to have a great deal of input into ceremonies.

To be sure, this book isn’t for everyone, and not all of its material is going to be used in any given marriage, or perhaps in any of the marriages that someone officiates.  Religiou traditions like my own have their own well-organized marriage liturgies that already incorporate a good deal of the biblical material included here, and civil ceremonies forbid the use of not only biblical but religious material in the broader sense.  Even so, despite the fact that the materials vary widely, this book gives a good idea of the hope as well as the concern that leads people to marry.  People marry with a sense of hope that it will make their lives better.  Yet people marry knowing that they are imperfect and that the people they are marrying are imperfect and that marriage depends on will more than emotion, but to know these things is one thing and to do them another.  It is far easier to know, and these poems show a good deal of knowledge, than it is to put into practice.  Even the lives of some of the writers of these poems suggests the difficulties involved, whether we are looking at the awkwardness of C.S. Lewis or the fragmented Sapphic odes or the people who wrote lovingly of their second marriages or those who never married at all but wished love for others.

[1] See, for example:








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How To Become A Heresiologist Without Really Trying

A heresiologist is someone who studies heresies.  As the term is unfamiliar to many readers, I figured we might as well begin with at least defining terms before exploring more arcane and unfamiliar tasks.  How does one become a student of heresies?  In my case, as is often the case, it has been rather accidental.  Perhaps there are some people who clearly aim at this identity intentionally, but I am not such a person.  There are many things I prefer studying, but for whatever reason I end up reading a lot about heresies and being sought after as someone who is fairly knowledgeable about them.  Like many things, this is a cycle that tends to reinforce itself.  Having knowledge about heresies tends to give you the opportunity to gain more knowledge about them, and so on and so forth.  When you know about heresies, people tend to go to you wanting to know what heresies their friends and relatives are flirting with, which tends to lead to more research into heresies and more knowledge and on it goes, without end.

Most people, it would seem, do not tend to read a great deal about heresies, but from time to time books relating to the subject come my way, and I read them thoughtfully if critically [1].  To study heresies is to recognize that religious groups have boundaries outside of which one is not welcome.  It is not my purpose here to discuss whether these  boundaries are sound, only to state the fact that religious traditions that are concerned by orthodoxy–which is every religious tradition I am aware of–has some sort of gatekeepers who study what is outside the line so that others may enforce boundaries.  Wherever doctrines are laid down there are going to be places outside the line.  A statement about the nature of God, for example, makes every other position on the nature of God a heresy, and on it goes for other doctrines.  And while there may be a great deal of tolerance for imperfect practice, there is likely to be less tolerance for those who consciously and deliberately have different beliefs about serious doctrines and who choose to state their differences loud and clear.

So, how does one become a heresiologist?  At least in my knowledge, there is no application process nor any sort of interview process.  For the most part, it is a fairly informal process from what I have seen.  But that does not mean there is not a preparation for it nor a certain sort of person who is ideal for such a role.  For one, such a person must be deeply interested in boundaries.  People who find themselves in intellectual frontiers or dealing with people of different mindsets and beliefs are often well-suited to be heresiologists because of their knowledge and familiarity with the extent of options available.  Not everyone is made more tolerant by wide exposure to different ways of thinking–some people become even more fierce about defending what they hold dear in the face of the threat of anarchy and chaos.  Lest one think this is a problem merely among extremists, sadly that is not the case at all.

Just how common is this phenomenon?  Let us count the ways.  Anytime a political leader tries to define who is and who is not a legitimate member of their party because they are too moderate and don’t defend party orthodoxy enough, that person is acting in such a fashion.  Anytime one reads a book or watches a video or listens to a radio show from a cult watcher who warns about certain religious groups, that person is serving in such a role.  Anytime I am asked to read a particular book by someone or listen to a particular sermon message because someone thinks it might be off the reservation, so to speak, I am serving in that role, and that is more common than one might think.  For example, I was once asked to listen to a sermon in a time of congregational crisis and the message quoted a poem that seemed to imply that Jesus Christ was a created being, a part of the ancient Arian heresy adopted by contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Just this evening, shortly before typing this, I was asked by a close friend of mine to read a particular book of which three copies can be found nearby because it is a popular and heretical work.  Despite my own lack of enthusiasm for reading the book previously, I now have reading it as somewhat of a mission.

So, let us recap.  How does one become a heresiologist without really trying?  First, it helps to have an interest in boundaries–setting them, defending them, tiptoeing close to them without crossing them, and snitching on others who transgress them.  Add to this an interest in learning about others and their ways along with a tendency to be somewhat critical, and you are will on your way to becoming a heresiologist.  If one develops a reputation for being knowledge about other ways of doctrine and religious practice, then one may very well be invited informally or even formally to be an expert on comparative religion, and one will have found to one’s surprise or maybe even chagrin that one has become a heresiologist simply by going about one’s business in a fairly ordinary way.  Stranger things have happened to people who are less odd than I am, after all.

[1] See, for example:





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Book Review: American Connections

American Connections:  The Founding Fathers.  Networked. by James Burke

This was a disappointing book to read, and one that could have been so much better.  When a book is praised by someone like Bill Gates, one expects this to be a glorious tour de force of networking expertise.  What one finds instead is the sort of reportage that one would get from the gossip rag at the grocery store checkout line.  Perhaps this is the sort of work that passes for contemporary and hip historical analysis of the founding fathers, a group that has no shortage of historical writing [1].  Nevertheless, this book is not something that I found to be an enjoyable or edifying read, and it is one that gave me rather more pessimism than I had already concerning the relationship of political, economic, and cultural elites.  There was a lot of decadence to be found here and this author celebrates it with reckless abandon.  It is one thing to chronicle decadence and corruption and to note it however sadly or ironically, but this author positively revels in it to a degree that made me uncomfortable as a reader and would likely make others uncomfortable as well.

The basic conceit of this book is to take all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and connect them through a chain of networks until one gets to somewhere close to the present day with either a person who is somehow connected with them personally or with a different person of the same name.  Thus every chapter of this book–some 300 pages or so–end with the same name that begins the chapter.  Most of the chapters are mercifully short, but they are also largely devoid of any genuinely uplifting moral value.  The author includes a large collection of sources, but overall the connections are an uninspiring lot and they reveal the author’s own interests to an unhealthy degree.  A lot of people are connected through evolutionary “scientists,” people involved all kinds of bizarre living arrangements, as well as people involved with various businesses and universities.  The author consistently refers to intellectual people as noodlers, as if it was a bad thing, and seems also to have an unhealthy obsession with people who write prolifically but remain obscure in their own lifetime and afterward, a fate that seems very likely to be my own.  At times several different stories intersect with the same small group of people over and over again.

Ultimately, this book is a clever idea that is sunk by the author’s love of decadence and corruption.  Yet there is a serious point that can be made here, even if it is not a serious point that I think the author of many of its readers would get.  The world of elites is a very small world–that is true whether we think of art, literature, music, science, business, politics, religion, or any other number of fields.  Moreover, elites from different fields tend to know each other, as this book amply demonstrates.  On top of all of all of this is the fact that many of these elites have corrupt thinking and living.  When you think of moral corruption like adultery and promiscuity and incest–all of which this book is extremely fond of–you will find elites involved in that.  This corruption also seems tied to political and economic corruption, left-wing politics, and worldview corruption, although that may be a matter of the author’s own interests redounding back in a negative fashion than in the actual prevalence of corruption among the population of elites that the connections of this book are composed of.

[1] See, for example:












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Book Review: Founding Feuds

Founding Feuds:  The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts That Forged A Nation, by Paul Aron

It is fairly inevitable given the great deal of attention that is given to our nation’s Founding Fathers [1] that someone would seek to look at their feuds and quarrels as being a source of our nation’s strength rather than a sign of the common fallen nature that they shared along with us.  As a person who has been prone to my share of feuds and quarrels with other people, the subject of the book was definitely one that I could relate to, without question.  The author, moreover, does a good job at framing the reason for the conflicts, and the fact that the conflicts show a greater richness about the humanity of the Founding Fathers than might otherwise have been the case.  The way that they treated rivals and people with whom they disagreed had a lot to do with the sorts of qualities that they embodied as well as the national culture that they helped to form.  In looking at the disagreements of the Founding Fathers, in other words, we help to see the conflicts that shaped our own conflict-ridden age, something most of us could better understand.

The roughly 150 pages of text (another 50 some pages are in footnotes documenting the conflicts) look at a series of feuds and quarrels that reveal something fundamental about the Founding Fathers.  Let us examine these quarrels in turn.  Silas Deane and Arthur Lee were two colleagues in the early efforts at diplomacy with France that fell out.  George Washington sought to recover without success his brave and spirited runaway slave Henry, who died mysteriously somewhere in Africa.  Benjamin Lincoln and Daniel Shays found themselves on opposite sides of a populist quarrel over Massachusetts debts to Revolutionary debtholders.  Patrick Henry opposed James Madison over the Constitution in Virginia.  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson sparred over the destiny of the United States in Washington’s first-term cabinet.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson quarreled in the immensely partisan struggles of the late 1790’s.  John Adams and Alexander Hamilton then quarreled over their mutual personality differences and mutual mistrust.  Thomas Paine and George Washington quarreled over Washington’s chilly reserve in the face of Paine’s problems as a result of his radicalism abroad.  Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon had a brawl with weapons in Congress over the partisan politics of the 1790’s.  William Cobbett and Thomas Paine had a newspaper war over their political disagreements.  Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton long sparred in New York politics before their quarrels ended in a deadly and infamous duel.  Not too many years later, the simmering quarrel between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended up in a trial for treason.  Equally unsurprising, this trial was the occasion for a longstanding political quarrel between Virginian relatives Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall over their differences in worldview.  Thomas Jefferson’s political pragmatism in the presidency then led him to fall out with antifederalist cousin John Randolph, who formed the Tertium Quids in response.  Then Thomas Jefferson had the temerity to quarrel with freed slave poet Phillis Wheatley, whose elegant neoclassical poetry contradicted his own racist views of black artistic and creative capabilities.  The book then closes with John Adams quarreling with amateur historian Mercy Otis Warren over his historical reputation, a fitting way to close a book about quarrels and historical reputations.

This is a short book but the quarrels it discusses are worth remembering even though many of them will be familiar to those who read a lot about the period of the early American republic.  Some people were pretty famous haters–John Adams was a prickly and sensitive person and so he had quarrels with many people but was also willing to let bygones be bygones at least some of the time.  Thomas Jefferson was a pretty notorious hater, for all of his historical importance, largely because he appeared to have problems whenever he was not in control and other people were constantly showing themselves to be beyond his power of domination.  The case of George Washington is a rather sympathetic one, at least to this soul of restraint, in that Washington’s reserve led him to have fewer outright feuds and quarrels than most people had his icy reserve was not one that captures our own hearts.  Perhaps we need others to be humans and cannot bear to see others as marble heroes.  Our age is one that must tear down every image except our idolatrous self-image it seems.

[1] See, for example:







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