The Glory Of An Analyst Is To Analyze

Often I ponder the relationship between different fields of study.  For example, in economics there is a great divide between macroeconomics in its look at large scale aggregates and microeconomics that looks at individual firms and the decisions of people.  And never the twain shall meet.  A similar phenomenon occurs in history, where there are macrohistorians who look at the large scale patterns and qualities of nations and regimes and microhistorians who look at individuals as well as small communities that are possible to look at in a granular fashion.  It is unsurprising that these approaches would end up with vastly different results, with the big picture focusing on areas of difference and the small picture focusing on nuance and complexity and contingency.  And so it is when we look at data analysis [1].  I happen to have a good deal of work experience in that field, and so I would like to look today at some of the complexities that happen with regards to data analysis and why it is often more frustrating and less glorious than it may first appear.

What sort of picture do we get when we look at data analysis from the large scale as opposed to the small scale and what implication does this have for our insights into data as well as micro and macro perspectives in general?  I have spent the vast majority of my time dealing with data on the small scale, which may be compared to moving around manure from one place to another.  Data on the micro scale, at least as far as I have seen it, is pretty messy and ugly.  One can tell that there are some major areas where the data lacks validity and one can think of immense amounts of information that are simply not there.  Data from one source does not always agree with data from other sources, and so on it goes.  Those who deal with data on the small scale have little if any confidence in the data itself and often in the conclusions that can be drawn from it.  Those who know the unreliability of the sources of the information have a great deal of well-earned skepticism at those who draw grand and sweeping conclusions from what they know to be basically unreliable data.

Yet on the other hand, sometimes the intractable problems of the small scale of data fade into insignificance when one looks at the larger scope.  For example, when one looks at the larger scale and scope of the data as a whole, it is often possible to make correlations and empirical connections between different types of data that one simply cannot fully gather from the raw data at hand.  For the purposes of sweeping narratives and large-scale strategies, close enough may be good enough because one is seeking to understand patterns and develop a course of action that one knows will require modification based on circumstances that cannot be known in advance.  One is not looking for a detailed picture, and indeed a detailed picture is almost sure to be wrong at some level, but rather one is looking for a lay of the land that provides a place to point ourselves towards or away from.  To the extent that those who hold to macro views wish to trumpet just how much they know, those with a better understanding of the granular data may point out that much of the data is unreliable and however specific is only worthwhile as an estimate.

Yet it is from the essentially unreliable data that we have to work with that analysis must proceed from.  The fact that our data is unreliable does not mean that there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are ill-equipped to see the truth because so much of the data depends on the imperfect actions of highly unreliable and imperfect people, people much like ourselves.  Likewise, the fact that our data is not perfect reliable does not mean that it is not useful.  Its precision may be bounded, but sometimes that very imprecision is itself notable.  To pick and example not at random, we may be able to get phone data from one source and lead data from another and be able to tell that a great many calls never become leads because of a lack of work ethic among those receiving the calls, but we could tie together those who received calls and those who input leads and be able to come up with tolerable accuracy a list of those people who did the best and worst job of inputting data in.  The possibility exists, therefore, for the data itself to help point out issues with the data so that such issues may be improved.  If they will always fall a bit short of perfection, they can be made better at least.

This leads to further implications that are worthwhile to consider.  The glory of an analyst is to analyze.  In order to find any sort of satisfaction in working with data, an analyst needs to be able to draw some conclusions and make some use of the data.  If all one’s time is spent in shoveling manure from one pile to another, one feels as if there is not a great deal of purpose in one’s efforts.  On the other hand, being able to step back and notice trends that would tell what proportion of what manure came from what species or even what individual animal, or get an idea of the chemical composition of that manure for use as fertilizer, that is something that one can get a great deal of insight from.  So long as the skepticism of the exactitude of data that one gets from an understanding of the micro perspective can moderate the sweeping and broad generalizations that one gets from the macro, and so long as the broader perspective and bigger picture that makes the macro perspective so enjoyable can encourage those who find their existence more than a little bit melancholy for being so close to crappy data, both perspectives can be enriched by the insights and strengths of the others.  If micro and macro may never meet, at least they may wave to each other in a friendly way as they pass along their respective journeys.  Perhaps that is close enough.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Institutes Of Biblical Law (Volume One)

The Institutes Of Biblical Law (Volume One) by Rousas John Rushdoony

My feelings about Calvinism are not very hidden.  I’m pretty open about them, and the thoughts tend towards the negative [1].  This book, at 850 pages, is a good reason as to why this is the case.  Few books are as frustrating as this one is, with a great deal of wisdom and insight on the level of broad theory and approach and such terrible interpretation of scripture and history on the specific level.  Few books combine such a pitiless and remorseless logic with such a nauseating lack of self-awareness.  This is a book all about condemning sinners of various stripes–and there are many–yet it manages at every turn to condemn the author and those who think like him, if that crowd was reflective enough to see it and take heed.  The author, and especially Gary North, who writes some of the supporting material at the end of this massive book, are the worst kind of antinomians in existence–first they try to overawe the reader with rhetorical blasts about supposedly having a so much more consistent and high-minded view of the law than everyone else, before seeking to wiggle out through fallacious reasoning from obedience to God’s laws, ending up being as disobedient as ordinary sinners but far more strident and harsh.

In terms of its contents, this book makes for a fairly good representative of the work of Christian reconstructionists in terms of its size and difficulty.  Most of the book consists of the author giving a discussion about the ten commandments and tying them to the author’s own political and economic agendas which are themselves not biblical.  In reading this book, one gets a lot more information about how the author feels about culture and politics than about the Bible, and where the Bible is discussed, the general rule of thumb to approach this book is that where the author is discussing broad overall themes and approaches it is quite good but when the author is discussing specific applications of biblical law then the approach is usually misguided.  A few examples should suffice.  The author, when talking about lying, chooses as his example the historical fact that six million or so Jews died in the Holocaust as being a lie by virtue of being an exaggeration, making a doubly unsatisfactory point in lying through Holocaust denial and minimization while simultaneously falsely accusing someone else of lying.  The author’s open admiration for the John Birch Society and the author’s conflation of coveting and stealing so as to deny the aspect of covetousness speaking to the heart are similarly poor efforts.  Gary North’s openly avowed antinomian approach to the Sabbath is one of the worst examples of biblical exegesis that can be found in any book pretending to be Christian, and all the more galling in light of the elevated claims for having a high degree of regard for God’s laws that can be found here.

So, what does one get out of this book?  Why would someone take the time to read 850 pages of densely argued and intellectually dishonest work?  I can see at least two reasons for reading this book and others like it.  First, this book offers some useful rhetorical arguments for obeying God’s law in the broad stroke, and offers some worthwhile criticism of many of the tendencies of both church and state in these corrupt days that are worthy of appreciation, however unworthy the author is at making those points given his own hypocrisy and blindness.  Even more to the point, though, this book is an object lesson in how unpleasant the self-righteous are.  In ridiculing and attacking the Pharisees, the author points at least as many fingers at himself and his associates as he points at those legalistic blind guides.  The way that the author beclowns himself through being blind to his own sins and faults while being unmerciful towards the sins and faults of others is a tendency that no would-be critic is immune to, and seeing how badly this book fares as an explanation of how to apply God’s timeless laws in contemporary society while also being loving and gracious to others is a reminder to every reader that without the grace of God, we could be Calvinists too.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Institutes Of Biblical Law: Volume Three: The Intent Of The Law

The Institutes Of Biblical Law:  Volume Three:  The Intent Of The Law, by Rousas John Rushdoony

Most books by Theonomist authors [1] tend to be somewhat long, but one of the things I have appreciated about this author is that he can write a short book on occasion.  Mind you, some of his books are really long, but he at least knew how to write a short and succinct book.  Someone needs to teach that lesson to some of his compatriots.  Not only is the book itself relatively short at a standard 200 pages in length, but the book itself is composed of bite-sized commentaries on different aspects of law.  To be sure, the book is a Theonomist book, which means that it talks about grace but doesn’t show itself to be particularly gracious to others, and misrepresents Arminian thought as it is wont to do, but the advantage of dealing with a book of this size in this form is that one can read it without getting too upset at the author’s lengthy discussion.  Instead you get small and insightful examinations about how our society would be benefited by the enforcement of God’s laws in our society.  Of course, as a Theonomist, the author believes that there will be a reformation in society apart from the return of Jesus Christ.

The roughly 200 pages of this book are made up of 74 short chapters that average a bit under 3 pages apiece.  The essays themselves examine a broad degree of subjects, including references to European history (King Alfred and Vlad the Impaler), a wide variety of biblical laws including the Sabbath laws and food flaws, concerns about antinomianism and polytheism and natural law.  The author is hostile to Greek philosophy even though the general approach of writers of Theonomy tends to be high on the cerebral and low on the kinder, gentle virtues of mercy and longsuffering.  The author was writing this book shortly before his death, and it shows that the author was a bit too tired to carry on his material to the length that he originally planned, but it’s still an impressive book and the content of this book is something well worth appreciating.  The author comes off as pretty tough-minded, but not unreasonable.  If I wrote about God’s law and its application to contemporary society with an expectation of internal societal reformation in order to fulfill God’s millennial problems and didn’t have a great deal of empathy or compassion, what I wrote would probably be a lot like this.

So, will you appreciate this book as much as I did?  Do you have a great deal of respect for God’s law?  Do you enjoy seeing harsh writing about the decline of society and have more tolerance for the logical flaws of the author–such as continual references to the unbiblical Triune God–than the author has for those logical flaws that others have?  If so, there is a good chance you will like this book a fair bit.  There are a few people who might want more of this author than this book provides, and those people will likely find some of the author’s several dozen other books.  But for those who find it a bit difficult to read nearly a thousand pages at a time in a book, this book gives a bite-sized critique of contemporary culture that includes personal stories, historical analysis, and biblical exegesis.  If you like what this book has to say, you will find at least a few essays to appreciate.

[1] See, for example:

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Shared Context And The Length Of Writings

As someone who reads a lot of books, I tend to notice a great deal in the way of patterns when I read them.  Some of the books I read are short, and many of them have a somewhat average length of between two and three hundred pages, and some books I read are far longer than that, approaching and passing even 1,000 pages at times.  Today, I would like to talk about one of the factors that influences the size of books that is not often considered, and that is the matter of context [1].  Context is one of those areas that is like the water in which fish swim or the air that we breathe, something that is invisible to us and is part of our ambient background that we take for granted even if we greatly depend on it.  Nevertheless, context matters a great deal in the lives we live, even such mundane activities as reading books.

In order to illustrate this point I would like to compare two books I recently finished.  One of these books was more than 800 pages long and was written by the late Theonomy writer Rousas John Rushdoony, largely a commentary on the ten commandments.  The second book was a book on vibrations from a New Age author I am not very familiar with, a book that came in at about 50 pages.  The first book was full of lengthy explanations, assuming that the author had no context with what was being said and so providing long quotations of biblical passages, the thoughts of writers that the author agreed with or disagreed with and wanted to praise or censure, and his own thoughts and reflections on the subject at hand.  The second book, on the other hand, assumed that the author was already familiar with the basic tenor of New Age spirituality and was largely in agreement with it, speaking of “karmic encounters” without even the barest hint of an explanation as to what that meant in the first place, and using the whole jargon of New Age self-therapy without a glossary of terms or defining the terms.  The author simply assumed that the reader already knew what she was talking about.

There are strengths and weaknesses with both approaches.  If you give no context, you will likely mystify those who do not share the context that you assume between readers.  It is all well and good to assume that you will share some fundamental and basic knowledge with the reader, but there are occasions where writers assume far too much background knowledge on the part of their readers and simply do not put forth the effort to come to terms with those who come to terms with them.  Admittedly, there are probably occasions where this has been the case with me.  On the other side, though, there are dangers in giving too much context.  For one, those people who are already familiar with context may be bored about having to wade through so much of what they already know to get something unfamiliar or striking or worthwhile.  There is another danger in that by speaking or writing too much one may give so much context that one may offend others who might have assumed there would be more agreement than actually exists.  I can certainly believe that this has been an issue as well in my own writing.

Therefore, let it be understood that when I examine the context provided by other writers that I use such reflections as a way to ponder my own writings.  There is clearly a balance that is desirable when it comes to context.  The amount of context we give may depend on the people we are communicating with–those who share more context will have more background information, and so less of it will have to be provided.  Additionally, it may depend on the subject.  Ultimately, though, one of the dangers that comes with being a writer is not being able to choose the audience of one’s writings.  Even if one writes, say, a personal letter to someone, there is no promise that the letter will remain private and personal, and sometimes even the recipient of a private communication lacks enough context or thinks they have more context than they actually do to interpret something in a friendly and accurate way.  How to be fair and kind to others, even when we think their words are in black and white and beyond complexity and ambiguity is a task that many readers and writers struggle with, some more than others.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Lincoln And His Admirals

Lincoln And His Admirals, by Craig L. Symonds

Although the naval history of the civil war is not something that is completely neglected by historians [1], it has definitely not received the same amount of attention as Lincoln’s relationship with his generals.  Part of this is due to the fact that the squeaky wheel gets the grease–Lincoln’s generals were a fairly obstreperous lot, many of them with political connections who wanted to throw around their weight.  This is not to say that the political element was missing from the navy during the Civil War, as this book demonstrates, but rather that there were far fewer political admirals and so Lincoln’s focus was usually focused on those people who were making the most noise and whose behavior was the most pivotal when it came to votes.  This book, though, is an admirable one in explaining the complicated involvement of Lincoln in naval affairs, and the author does a good job in setting a context in which his involvement was often necessary to smooth over conflicts, and in which Union victory came about through complicated means, in which the navy played a supporting but important role.

With over 300 pages of content, none of it filler, this book fills an admirable void in discussing Lincoln’s relationship with his admirals.  As is the case in general, the tale shown is of increasing confidence and competence among Lincoln in his role as commander and chief along, as well as a high degree of rivalry between Seward and Welles over matters that involved both of them, which proved to be quite a few.  Organized in a chronological fashion, the author shows how Lincoln’s initial understanding of the navy and the relationship between the navy and army and the navy and foreign affairs was not always strong.  Lincoln is consistently shown as being a moderating influence on the extremes pushed by others, seeking to guide a path between radical and conservative, and usually successful at engaging in the difficult balancing act.  Likewise, the importance of the navy is shown in combined operation, blockade running, attempting to deal with commerce raiding, and interacting with foreign citizens and the agents of foreign governments.  The result is a book that contains some information that people might not be aware of, such as the patronage politics of the navy and the struggle for officers in promotion as well as to gain the naval victories that would give one a high reputation.  As was the case with his generals, Lincoln preferred those who didn’t continually demand reinforcements.

This is a book that makes a fine companion volume to Lincoln and His Generals, a book the author himself makes reference to in the introduction to this book.  For those who have an interest in the naval history of the Civil War, and enjoy reading about the ways that naval affairs can influence matters of diplomacy as well as military strategy, this is a worthwhile book.  The way that the author is able to grasp Lincoln’s political skill and the way he made people feel like he was on their side even when he was somewhat skeptical about them, as was the case with Porter, is itself worth the read.  Where else can one expect to know so thoroughly the rivalries between various naval officials and the way that Lincoln and Seward struggled with being back channels, especially early in Lincoln’s presidency, concerning naval affairs?  The end result is that this particular volume gives a fascinating and detailed look, well backed up by the evidence, into an area of history that is often ignored.  To be sure, there are many more books about Abraham Lincoln than one could read during a lifetime, but this is certainly a worthy one.

[1] See, for example:


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Book Review: April 1865

April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik

This book has been on my radar to read for a long time. I am no stranger to reading books or pondering about the end of the Civil War [1] and the importance of that gracious ending on the well-being of the United States. Not only that, but this book is one that is frequently held up as a particularly excellent book, and one well worth reading. People have been encouraging or nagging me to read this book for a long time, for quite a few years in fact, and at length the time came for me to read it in my personal queue of books and I can only say that the book disappointed me. Perhaps it would be most fair for me to say that if you only want to read one book on the winding down of the Civil War and the decision of the generals of the South to surrender to the Union rather than fight a guerrilla war, this is a good book to read, but if you have read many of the books this author cites somewhat casually, one will enjoy it a lot less because one will already have the same context as the author when it comes to the relevant history, and will therefore learn a lot less from it.

In terms of its contents, this book takes a largely chronological view of the last days of the Civil War. With very short chapter titles, the author begins with the context of Lincoln in Washington at his second inaugural and then Lee seeking to escape Petersburg and save his suffering army, and the dilemmas they are facing in order to achieve very different goals. The story of the Appomattox campaign is then told in a somewhat florid style, with the drama built up to the meeting between Lee and Grant and the decision to graciously allow a surrender that preserves the honor and dignity of the defeated rebel soldiers. At this point, though, we are only about halfway done with the story, before the book takes a dark look at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and its effect on the surrender of Johnson’s army to Sherman at Bennett Farm in North Carolina. The author maintains a tone of high drama throughout and shows that while Jefferson Davis desired to encourage guerrilla warfare that one by one the various leaders of rebel armed forces stood down and accepted the gracious surrender terms by their Union counterparts. All of this takes nearly 400 pages of writing, where the author not only wishes to tell the tale of the ending of the Civil War in a great deal of complexity but also wishes to provide the context of the lives of the various people involved. This means that whenever someone is mentioned at a key moment, the author then steps out of the narrative flow and gives a lengthy mini-biography of that person to help explain their thinking process and behavior, all of which makes this book far longer than it had to be, or would be if it was aiming at an audience of people knowledgeable about 19th century American history.

This is not a book that is bad as much as it is a bit oversold. The threat of guerrilla warfare was real, but it was ultimately a road not taken by rebels in April 1865 for a variety of reasons, one of which was that they valued their elite status more than they valued independent nationhood. Where the book sticks closely to its sources, it is not particularly original, and where it departs from these sources, it makes soaring over-generalizations and makes a dramatic novelization of the history of the time. Moreover, the book abounds with tragic irony. Some of this is intentional on the part of the author, wishing to contrast the graciousness of the wounds being bound up of the nation with the loss of Abraham Lincoln to assassination, but some of it is unintentional. The author belatedly and only partly recognizes the essentially tragic element of the national reconciliation forged in April 1865 that he praises so stoutly, and that was that the reconciliation of rebels, reconstructed or otherwise, with the reformed Union was largely done so on the backs of the blacks who had been previously enslaved and would continue to be held in a status of second class citizenship for the next century, whatever the Constitution may say about it. Jay Winik says in this book that the United States was a rare example of a nation that escaped the hostility of civil wars throughout history, but in reality the only reason this is so is because the terms ultimately required of reunion were at minimal cost to the traitors and rebels who had started the war in the beginning, and thus surrender and reunion were made acceptable from a defeat that was viewed in such a way as to give them great honor even at cost to their power within the nation as a whole. This book, ironically, contributes to that desire of Southerners to view their own behavior with a sense of pride even in defeat.

[1] See, for example:

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Take Me To The River

This weekend, after a somewhat last-minute set of arrangements, I and two others went traveling for a couple of hours or so down a portion of the Rogue River from Grant’s Pass to Hellgate Canyon and back.  In retrospect, I would have wanted a bit more time.  For example, when we were standing in line to go on the boat I saw that it was highly recommended to wear sunglasses (which I did not have on me) as well as sunscreen, which would have been highly useful, but not being fully prepared I had to accept the inevitability of a ferocious sunburn, which I got.  Likewise, I probably would have brought a light jacket, which would have cut down on the sun as well as the water, as it was a pretty wet experience, although not unenjoyably so.  Likewise, my mother, being a person who likes to make plans and has a far greater sense of adventure than is usually expected of her, would have liked more notice as well to do more planning, but sometimes notice is not given and one simply has to roll with the current of the rapids as best as one is able.

My own relationship with water is somewhat complicated.  I have always found the water to be greatly calming, and have generally looked to it for purposes of tranquility rather than excitement [1].  This particular trip, though, was definitely about excitement.  There were alternating periods of talk and idling in deeper water in the river with high speed rushing through the rapids of a river that could be as shallow as only a few inches in parts.  The Rogue River is certainly a lot less deep than one might expect for a river of such importance in Southern Oregon–other rivers like the Applegate, responsible for the name of one of the trails connecting Oregon and California, are even smaller and more insignificant when viewed from river level.  That is not to say that the river was not beautiful–it was, with the cool water being a refreshing break from the heat of the day, with there being all kinds of friendly and gracious and warm people in and along the river to wave to, and some beautiful sights of osprey nests and homes built on floodplains and gravel beaches and green, forested hills on both sides of the river.  All of those are things I happen to enjoy seeing.

The people on board were an interesting mixture of people.  Many were young, which is not too surprising.  About a half or so of our particular boat was made up of people who worked at a local Mexican restaurant in Grant’s Pass, many of whom were very friendly with each other, even to the point of roasting each other for not being able to swim and so on.  It was intriguing to see just how easy it was to encourage a sense of rivalry between the people and driver’s in one boat and another.  It seemed as if, far from being a cooperative sort of event, that there was a special interest in pitting people against each other, whether the people of one boat against another or even the people of one side of the boat against others when it came to getting wet.  I found all of this greatly intriguing to watch, being someone who enjoys watching the behavior of people just as I enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.

So, all in all it was a worthwhile trip.  By the end of it, I was the only one who seemed aware of where we had parked on the way in, and the only one well equipped to do a fair bit of hiking, but sometimes that comes with the territory.  I and everyone else on those boats got at least a little wet but it was a hot enough day that we felt pretty dry even after being doused repeatedly by the cool river water.  The skipper of the boat was full of jokes and stories and good humor about the flood levels of the Rogue River in various years, the behavior of the local bird population, as well as the various films and television shows that had filmed in the stretch of the river we traveled in.  There were frequent suggestions within our group of the advisability of having a booze cruise, and plenty of people enjoying the river in quirky and odd ways, who were generally friendly souls to the other people on the river.  To be sure, I would have liked having more time to prepare and more knowledge about what is needful to have the most fun with the least negative consequences on the river, but although I am deeply sunburned it was an enjoyable experience, and certainly one well worth doing again.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy:  The Classic Account Of A Remarkable Christian Experience, by G.K. Chesterton

I first heard of this book when I read a lost of 25 recommended books for Christians from a group that appeared to have close ties to monastic and Catholic interests, and as someone who is more or less fond of G.K. Chesterton’s writings [1] and thinking, even if not very familiar with them as of yet, I thought this would be a good book to check out.  I have to say upon reading this that I found this book extremely relevant in a variety of ways.  This is not a perfect book–and I will get around to its flaws at some point–but it is a very profound book, and it is easy to see why this book comes so highly recommended.  One can see some of the writing here that influenced C.S. Lewis in his own apologetics writing, and any writer who reminds me of C.S. Lewis is doing a very good job indeed.  Admittedly, some of this book seems more than a little bit scattered and random, but that is not necessarily a bad thing either, as this book has a lot going for it in the striking insights it makes and in the way its thinking process runs counter to that of our own times, and in the way that the author is remarkably personal in his discussion, all of which win over the fair-minded reader.

In terms of its contents, this book comes in at close to 250 pages, but the book reads pretty quickly.  It is worth stating that this book is not the sort of book on Orthodoxy that most people would write nowadays, for though this author thinks highly of the Apostles’ Creed, Chesterton is not the sort of author to beat the reader over the head as is the fashion of some.  This book is divided into nine chapters.  The first chapter is an apologia, in which the author states that he has found it necessary to appear arrogant when he is merely trying to be candid.  After that the author discusses the maniac and how it is a perversity of the rational mind rather than the imagination, generally speaking.  After that the author talks about the death of thought in the culture of his time, something that has only continued in our own, before looking at the ethics of Elfland and defending fantasy and speculative literature as opposed to ‘realistic’ fiction.  The author then looks at issues of identity and patriotism before warming up to his main subject, namely the paradoxes of Christianity and the hypocritical way in which it is often attacked.  The last three chapters look at the fact that Christianity promises eternal revolution, that the author’s orthodoxy has a certain romance to it, and that having an adventuresome life often depends on having the right sort of authority in one’s life.  Throughout the author shows himself to be witty and charitable, all of which makes for enjoyable reading.

Although this is a very good book, the author clearly has some strong Catholic biases.  What I found objectionable about this book, when I disagreed with it, was that the author conflated the biblical and the Catholic.  He showed a great love of paganism–something C.S. Lewis shared, and which the Bible itself was greatly hostile to, although it was something notable about Rome’s approach to religion.  The author’s defense of the Trinity itself is an example of a false dilemma, pitting Unitarianism against Trinitarianism, neither of which are the biblical position.  Admittedly, these errors detract from my enjoyment of the book somewhat, but they are fairly slight and not very common, and although I must freely admit that my own position is in some way distinct from the author’s and probably not something that would frequently be viewed as orthodox in general, this was a book I could still enjoy and appreciate.  There was substantial common ground about faith where I could stand in agreement with the author, and reading this book helped show me more about Chesterton as a man, and both of those are things to be appreciated.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Universe According To G.K. Chesterton

The Universe According To G.K. Chesterton:  A Dictionary Of Te Mad, Mundane, And Metaphysical, edited by Dale Ahlquist

Admittedly, this book is a bit slight.  More to the point, this book is admitted to be a bit slight by the person who edited this book from many of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, a man who was nothing if not an extremely prolific writer [1].  In fact, this book’s editor notes that people are still trying to sort out all of Chesterton’s works and catalog them, which means that those scholars who appreciate his work and wish to write about it and use it as research have much work to do.  It also means that graduate students looking for original research have much to do with the Chesterton oeuvre that would count as original research, thankfully.  Chesterton was a larger than life person–both literally and intellectually, and this book is a lot less slim than he was, although it makes for an interesting example of how fond he was at definitions.  The fondness for defining terms, sometimes in ways that are strikingly insightful and some in ways that are subjective and not grounded in reality, is a tendency of Chesterton’s work that this particular book exhibits, and it is likely that a deeper examination of Chesterton’s writings will provide more examples of this tendency.

The contents of this volume itself are organized in a very straightforward fashion.  After a short introductory section by the editor, the definitions included in this book are shown in alphabetical order, some of them with photos.  The book as a whole is only about 120 pages long, and each of the definitions is given with a citation of the source among the body of Chesterton’s writings.  Some of the definitions are short and pithy, and some of them are much longer.  Definitions are taken from the wide context of the author’s writings, including his novels and stories as well as his works of literary criticism and his theological and philosophical and historical writings.  The definitions have a wide range of quality as well, but even at their most head-scratching, the definitions provided usually give something for the reader to think about and ponder about, even where the reader may disagree strongly with the tenor of the definitions that is provided.  For example, the author’s known Catholicism gives his definition of that religion a particular quality that is unsupported by the facts and evidence of the author’s own partisanship.

Overall, this work is a diverse one and is full of a great deal of wit and originality.  One can easily imagine many of these entries having been first used as bon mots in debates or spirited dinner conversations.  Some of the definitions are of the author’s time, but a great many of them remain particularly relevant even today.  There is a clear sense that in many respects, and this includes his comments on Germany, for example, that the author was a prophet about the 20th century with a great deal of insight into the societal trends and larger historical patterns we would see.  Particularly heartwarming to this reader is the way that Chesterton skewers Calvinism in several of the definitions, pointing out its abstraction and its general lack of human warmth, at least when one engages in theological debate with many Calvinists, as has been my own fate as well.  I am not sure how many readers will be introduced to Chesterton through this little book, but those who are will likely find enough here to make them curious about some of his other works, of which there are many, thus giving them the worthwhile habit of becoming more familiar with his immense body of work.

[1] See, for example:

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Oh, That We Might See Some Good

Sometimes, a theme for a particular Sabbath comes through the unobtrusive combination of many elements, that although uncoordinated by the people involved shows a certain coherence that draws attention. Indeed, this combination of independent but simultaneously interrelated decisions to focus on certain things is taken as providential. So it was today, and it dealt with the sort of subject that I think about from time to time [1], and my thoughts on it were more than a little bit melancholy. Perhaps those stories that were meant to express a certain amount of joy on the part of the speaker could not help but bring a certain sense of sadness to me as a listener, but that is often how things are. We speak based on what we know and what we have observed, and we listen with different thinking and thought processes and experiences and situations in life than those who speak. Such is the way of the world. Whether or not we like to consider ourselves as being subject to the same sorts of influences and factors as the rest of the world, we are human beings just like everyone else, and we need to remember that other people are still people even if they are redeemed people and cannot be expected to have tossed aside their human nature simply because God is working within them the miracle of transforming their own natures to a better one.

This common theme began with one of the songs chosen to introduce Sabbath services, with its moving line, “Oh, that we might see some good, many will say. Only look and smile on us, O righteous God.” It is common for people to act in such a way that they think they may see some good, only for this not to be the case. We are not immune from these tendencies, and when we point out that other people may long for good without being really equipped to obtain it, or really serious about what it would take for us to see some good in our lives and in our relationships, we are not always sensitive to the fact that we are pointing fingers at ourselves just as surely as we are pointing them at other people. For example, a part of our trip here was to encourage a reconciliation between two estranged people—and for a change, I was not one of them—and yet the end result was only to reveal the sorts of gaps that lead people to be estranged in the first place, and the apparent aggression of some and the simultaneous avoidance of others who do not want a reconciliation that does not change the offensive behavior that led to the estrangement in the first place.

This theme continued with the sermonette given by a man who no doubt has some complicated views of me given our past dealings, but who I take to be a decent if somewhat restrained person in his demeanor. He commented at some length about the newlywed cruise he and his wife had taken, and the fact that their colorful choice of costume had led them to be chosen for a particular game show that sought to pit the husbands and wives against each other for the enjoyment of the crowd, an effort that was foiled by their commitment to only speak what was noble and true and good about each other. Among the more insightful comments of the message was that the crowd which had come to see husbands and wives embarrass each other and humiliate each other eventually came to realize that they wanted to see something that they had not realized. They had wanted to see good, even without knowing it, perhaps in despair about the existence of such good in the first place. This is a common problem within humanity. It is easy to protect our sensitive and tender hearts with a veneer of cynicism, to believe that our feelings cannot travel without layers of irony, because we do not hope that others will be kind to us and act with concern towards us. This cynicism is, of course, borne out by a large part of the interactions that we have in life, but that cynicism prevents us from recognizing good to a great extent. As is often the case in life, what we do as people to defend ourselves from the evil that exists around us and within us often only makes that evil more pervasive by being less often resisted.

The sermon continued the theme, with the minister talking about the difference between good and bad wheat taken from a field close to where the recent men’s weekend was held as an entrance into a thoughtful discussion about bearing fruit. It was pointed out that we often set a low bar for ourselves, whether we are wheat or tares, and do not think of the purposes of plants in bearing fruit for the benefit of others like ourselves. It is not enough merely not to do evil, but we must do good as well. It is not enough simply to seek our own well-being, but we must seek the well-being of others. Our lives must bear fruit and must serve for the benefit of others. If others are not being improved by our own lives, we are not fulfilling our own purposes for existence. The message, as might be imagined, was a challenging one when taken on its contents, although it was delivered with a great amount of grace and tact, and with the use of the wheat and the contrast between the wheatberries as an object lesson that helped to make the delivery of the message far less heavy-handed than it could have been. It was the sort of message meant to give others food for thought and reflection, to remind us to avoid a sense of complacency in what we are about and to spur us onward to being more fruitful in our lives.

I often wonder about whether my life is being productive. Mankind was commanded to be fruitful and multiply at the beginning of the Bible—it is in fact the first commandment mankind is given, and I feel I do not obey this commandment as well, that my life is not particularly fruitful. I wonder about the proportion of good fruit and bad fruit, about the balance between the good I do others and the harm I have done to others through the course of my life. Perhaps these are common concerns and perhaps I am not the most just person to examine my own life. Yet the only mind and heart I know intimately at this stage of life are my own, if they are not the most pleasant mind and heart to know, they are my own and I have no others to choose from. Producing fruit and multiplying cannot be hard work, for they are something that are done by brainless plants and the great mass of plants and animals without any thought or reflection whatsoever. Sometimes it seems that thinking and reflecting only gets in the way of doing what is often done naturally by the great mass of beings that exist on our world. Yet some of us cannot act naturally, but are compelled to be conscious and deliberate, and therefore a bit more awkward than those who are able to simply act without reflection. Yet this awkwardness cannot be a bad thing forever, right? Even odd fruit must have its own way to be fruitful, however delayed, no?

[1] See, for example:

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