Who Told You?

[Note:  This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at The Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on August 11, 2018.]

I imagine that most of us here are familiar with dinner parties held with other brethren where we sit with people we kind of know but don’t necessarily know all that well and are searching our brains looking desperately for something witty or clever to say and hoping we don’t say something awkward.  On the other hand, these conversations can, when done well, lead to people who may know each other shallowly over the course of many interactions to know each other deeper, and to become closer friends.  Over the years, as we spend time with each other, we better understand the sort of family that God is putting together through us, one member at a time.

It is not only we ourselves, though, who have to worry about awkward interactions.  The Bible is full of accounts of awkward interactions, made uncomfortable by the knowledge of what was going on the one hand and the thwarted desire to escape being known on the other hand.  The first awkward conversation in the Bible, in fact, takes place in Genesis 3:8-13.  Let us turn there, and examine the awkwardness of this familiar conversation and some of its implications for ourselves.  Genesis 3:8-13 reads:  “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”  So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”  Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”  The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.””

What makes this such an awkward conversation?  Let us note that a large part of the awkwardness is because Adam and Eve were trying to hide from God.  Anytime a conversation appears where one or some of the parties are trying to hide or run away from the others, any interaction between those people is going to be awkward and uncomfortable.  Had Adam and Eve approached their impending conversation with God with anything other than panic and fear, it would have been much less uncomfortable.  We know that after this interaction God pronounced a curse on Satan and the pain of childbirth and the hard labor men would be subjected to, but the real awkwardness comes here in the beginning of that conversation, which is why I have focused on precisely that part.  Another aspect that makes this conversation awkward is that God is asking a lot of questions–four of them to begin with.  In many ways, these questions are rhetorical in that God already knew the answers to them, but they are questions meant to bring out confession on the part of Adam and Eve.  Only Adam and Eve don’t react that way, rather seeking to make hollow justifications or blame others for their sin, a pattern most of us continue in our own awkward interactions with others.  Let us focus on one of these rhetorical questions that God asked here:  Who was it that had told them they were naked and so encouraged them to hide in shame and fear from their Father and Creator?  Who was it?  [waits for answers]  I want you to keep this in mind.

When we move beyond this original awkward conversation that set the pattern for a great variety of awkward conversations that followed, it is worthwhile as well to ponder how it was that God viewed the Church of God that he created in the wilderness and after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because we see similar patterns being said about both the people of Israel and the Israel of God.  In Exodus 19:5-6 we get an early glimpse of what God wanted Israel to be.  Exodus 19:5-6 comes shortly before the giving of the ten commandments, and it gives the vision of God for how Israel was to be:  “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.””  Here we see that Israel was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, something God had the authority to give since He had the earth to give as He chose, having made it, but only if Israel obeyed His voice and kept His covenant, which is precisely what Adam and Eve had not done.

We see this identity of the Israel of God repeated in a very familiar passage in 1 Peter 2:9-10.  Most of us have heard this particular passage repeated over and over again, but let us get a sense of what God is trying to say.  In fact, let us begin with verse 4, so that we may get the context of what God says in verses nine and ten:  “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.”  Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”  They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.  But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”

What is Peter saying here?  For one, it should be clear that he is quoting a few scriptures to point to Jesus Christ as a living stone, and the chief cornerstone of the temple that God is building through those who are called and chosen.  He quotes, for example, Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, and Isaiah 8:14 to clinch his point about the way that Jesus Christ was rejected by men but chosen by God.  And he points out that the people chosen by God were themselves outcasts and misfits on this earth as well, but were made into a royal priesthood and a holy nation–notice the similarity to what God told the Israelites at Sinai.  Israel had been oppressed in slavery for generations, and yet it was God’s intention to make them into a glorious nation, if they would hear His voice and obey His word.  And it is precisely that quality that God emphasizes over and over again.  Those who hear His voice and are obedient to His word are to become part of His family, and those who are rebellious trip and stumble over the living stone that is Jesus Christ and hobble around spiritually as some of us hobble around physically.

It should be noted, though, that Peter makes it clear that the blessings in being a part of God’s family are not because we are glorious in ourselves.  Neither were the ancient Israelites, who were not very impressive former slaves and whose whining and complaining in the wilderness and whose persistent disobedience to God throughout their history were a source of continual torment to God.  Nor is Peter alone in emphasizing this point about the lack of earthly credentials that believers tend to have.  1 Corinthians 1:18-31 tells us again about this familiar divide between believers and unbelievers, and points to the modest earthly status of believers:  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”  Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.  But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.  But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.””

Here again we see the same pattern that Peter spoke of in 1 Peter 2.  Those who trust in their own wisdom and who do not hear the voice of God find the workings of God with mankind to be a stumbling block and offensive to their ideas of how things should be.  The world expects that God should call those who are famous and glamorous and honored and respected by all, and are offended that God should call those who are obscure outcasts.  But as was the case with ancient Israel, God does not want believers to glorify in their own talents and their own abilities and gifts, as if we had credit for the extent that we were wise and noble, but rather God wants us to appreciate His generosity towards us, so that we may understand that we are nothing without Him, but everything in Him, through Him, and by Him.

In this light, therefore, I wonder why there are such divisions within the family of God.  Why is it that there are such cliques among us?  Why is it that we snub and exclude other brothers and sisters because we do not consider them cool enough to want them to associate with us?  Why is it that we cannot even bear at times to be polite to fellow brethren, much less friendly with them?  Why is it that we sometimes cannot even bear to be in the same building as those whom we snub and act so rudely towards?  Who told us that God was calling people who were cool, who were easy to get along with, who were socially graceful, who everyone would gravitate towards?  Has not God always called those who were viewed by the world with contempt so that He could manifest His power to transform them into His sons and daughters?  Why should it be any different for us now than it was in the time of ancient Israel or in the writings of Peter and Paul?  Who is telling us that we can look down on our fellow brothers and sisters, no matter how awkward and odd they may be?  Is it not the same being who told Adam and Eve that they were naked and so they should hide from God the same way we hide from our brethren?  Why should we listen to him?

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Book Review: Winter Morning Walks

Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards To Jim Harrison, by Ted Kooser

Sometimes a book of poems surprises you in a very good way.  I must admit that before reading this book I was not familiar at all with the poems of the onetime Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, and this book was an excellent first look at his approach to poetry, although I cannot consider it a very common book of poetry.  Indeed, this book of poetry suggests the sort of exercise that would be useful to many of us who are poets, and that is committing to writing poems that can fit on a postcard to someone who is an appreciative reader out of whom an entire volume of poems like this one can be selected [1].  While I do not know of any readers of mine who would appreciate daily poems of the kind that this one represents, this book certainly does a good job at providing a worthwhile concept for some truly arresting and intriguing short poems, many of which are of the kind that I could see myself reading if I lived in the country or if I was writing poems about the place in the country where I spend a fair amount of time.

This short book of poetry consists, as its title suggests, 100 short poems written on postcards from the author to a friend and sometime collaborator of his.  All of the poems are short, and they are organized in chronological fashion from November 9, 1998 to March 20, 1999.  One might think that the task of writing poems, all of which include the temperature during the morning when it was taken before the poem was written, would be a tiresome one, but the constraints the author subjected himself appear to make this all the more interesting as an exercise, and one that is worth repeating for others.  As a way of overcoming depression and understanding that someone cares that one is alive, this book of poetry is therapeutic as well as deeply poignant and thoughtful to read.  The poems are written in free verse, but are full of alliteration and vivid imagery that gives the reader an impressionistic sketch of a winter scene being discussed.  We see frosty fingers and a “deeply troubled, sighing furnace” trying to heat the house in the midst of the chill, and the reader can imagine oneself witnessing or experiencing the same scene that is being discussed concisely but beautifully.

How is it that this book works so well?  For one, its theme keeps its contents focused on the experience of observing and writing about winter scenes.  For another, the author is skilled at finding something worth writing about, taking in a scene and making compelling poetry out of it.  This sort of exercise would appear to hone the author’s creativity by giving him something to do daily, a way of overcoming listlessness and melancholy, and by giving him an audience who cared about what he has to say, something every author needs, no matter the genre.  This book manages to do several things at once.  For one, it shows a poet engaged in a worthwhile exercise of writing his insights on a particular period of time where he happens to live, and contain some very observant details.  For another, the book is the kind that not only encouraged the author in its creation but also encourages others in reading it and in pondering whether such an effort could be done by other people at other times with the same worthwhile benefits in encouraging a daily pattern of watching the conditions of one’s world as well as recording it and sending it to someone else, an audience of one that will be merely the first of many appreciative readers.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/14/pygmies/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/05/der-untergang-after-w-g-sebald/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/28/who-killed-the-door/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/19/o-tinnitus-after-gerard-manley-hopkins/

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Book Review: Mermaids In The Basement

Mermaids In The Basement:  Poems For Women, by Carolyn Kizer

Unfortunately, when I was getting this book from the library, intrigued by its title, I did not see the subtitle of the book stating that this book, like so many that I read, was intended for an audience which I am most definitely not a part of [1].  In this particular case, I have to say that my being a man, and being a strong fan of the Judeo-Christian religious worldview, does not make very fond of this book.  Even though this book is aimed at women, I suspect there are a great many women who will not like what this book has to say, not least because the book attacks those women who were not themselves overtly hostile to men (Jane Austen is one of those who in a particular poem is insulted as being a cabbagehead for worshipping God as a man (41)).  If you are a woman and not fond of the supposed “sacred feminine” paganism this book endorses, the author is calling you cabbagehead.  I suppose she has worse opinions of men, but someone with that lack of charity of spirit and that lack of accuracy and good sense is not someone whose opinion matters too much.

Thankfully, this book is rather short at just over 100 pages, because it has little to offer a great many of its potential readers.  The books are divided into seven parts.  The first part looks at Mothers and Daughters, reflecting on marriage and family and having some disturbingly incestuous aspects to some of its lines.  The second part of the book is written for female friends, of which the author apparently only has five (for the amount of poems there are).  It is a wonder that the author has as many friends as she claims, given her overall lack of kindness in her lines.  The third part of the book consists of a four part poem “Pro Femina,” which may be the least essential thing that needs more written about it, as someone who has suffered through dozens of books that resolutely ignore men and their concerns altogether.  The fourth part of the book is devoted in true weebalo-like fashion to Chinese love, showing the author’s fondness for Eastern poetry, much of which is quite skilled in its execution.  The fifth part of the book consists of a few poems that show the author’s interest in heathen Greek mythology.  The sixth part of the book consists of a long poem dedicated to a month in summer, while the seventh and last section of poems consists of the author’s random and highly odd reflections on where she has been all her life, as if anyone wanted to know.

I am of two minds regarding this book.  One the one hand, the author is clearly a skilled poet when it comes to technical matters.  If the subject matter and approach of the poems had been less personally hostile in terms of matters of gender as well as religious worldview, I would have viewed this collection of poems very highly.  But that is precisely the problem.  A book of technically skilled poems of a wide variety of types shows off the virtuosity of the poet, to be sure, but the poet forgets that the first order of business when writing a book is to make the book acceptable to its audience when it is within his or her power to do so.  This book manages to be both false in its worldview as well as deliberately provocative to the point of being offensive to any man worth being called by the name and to the majority of the world’s women.  Unfortunately, this book’s target audience consists of neo-pagan women and present and future bitter misanthropic cat women, and that is not an audience I either write for or consider myself particularly sympathetic with.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/04/book-review-dangerous-men-and-adventurous-women/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/03/26/book-review-the-secret-place-of-the-most-high-for-women/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/08/03/book-review-what-about-women/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/12/24/book-review-every-bitter-thing-is-sweet/

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Eleanor Rigby

Earlier this week I answered a random twitter question that asked what songs would be good to make television series from?  The first song I happened to think of was Eleanor Rigby, which is perhaps an easy thing to understand.  Let us examine how it is that one could make a compelling series out of this song, and what it indicates about the sorts of songs that would make for inspirations for longer series media, be they films or television shows.  First, let us look at the lyrics for the song (courtesy of LyricFind):

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near.
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

***

So, what is the story that is being told.  For one, we have the lonely person Eleanor Rigby picking up the rice after a wedding, presumably lacking a partner for herself, and we also have Father McKenzie working and darning his socks and writing a sermon that no one will hear.  In terms of characters, it is fairly easy to flesh out what sort of series would work for this.  The song as a whole reflects upon loneliness, and while that is not the most obvious choice for a television series, it would make for some compelling viewing, if somewhat uncomfortable viewing [1].  From the two main characters of the song, it would be worthwhile to think of a series that focuses on the loneliness of different people that interact, or at least share the presence, of these two titular lonely people.

One could start, for example, with one or multiple episodes about Eleanor herself.  How does she live her life aside from trying to collect the rice that has been thrown at the wedding?  Why does she die in church?  Does she have anywhere else to live?  Who else attends services there?  We know, for example, that there are to be episodes focusing on Father McKenzie, on his duties as a priest.  Who listens to his sermons, and who does he interact with?  What was the couple getting married?  Are they lonely together?  What other guests were there at the wedding?  Did any of them notice Eleanor or have any meaningful role in her life?  One could see a drama like this telling various vantage points of different characters in the same small world and show how many and various are the ways that people are lonely in this world.

I personally think it would make for compelling viewing, but it would certainly be unconventional viewing.  Most series focus on a small set of main characters that the viewer is meant to care about and who the other characters in the show care about, but the main point of this show would be to demonstrate the characters living lives that no one seems to care about, no matter how much they may (quietly) care about others.  Indeed, the major characters of individual episodes would be likely to be minor characters in other episodes, given the smallness of the world that many people live in.  It would require some very clever continuity work to make sure that people look the same and dress the same as they interact with each other over the course of the episodes, but it is definitely something that could work very well in giving an example of a show full of lonely people who long for connection but cannot seem to find.

What is it that makes this song (and others like it) worthy of being turned into television shows?  The main part is that they tell a compelling story that one can expand from.  One website listed dozens of potential series that would take the premise of the song and expand on it.  One can take the story or premise of the song and expand from it, one can take the title of the song and think of a situation it fits for, and the result is a strong premise for a show that could last several seasons.  Indeed, there are many songs that one can creatively twist to serve as the premise for a show, with a ready-made audience as well as theme song.  Why then is it not done more often?  Given how many reboots are done, why not take a song that allows the chance for at least a somewhat fresh premise, something that has not literally been done before?  Are we really that uncreative?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/25/book-review-lonely-husbands-lonely-wives/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/11/12/the-lonely-hour/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/10/20/the-lonely-fly/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/07/26/the-lonely-island/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/08/08/nobody-wants-to-be-lonely/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/11/08/book-review-the-lonely-god/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/09/03/its-a-lonely-galaxy-out-there/

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Book Review: Falstaff Give Me Life

Falstaff Give Me Life, by Harold Bloom

I must say that unlike many people I have not generally found Falstaff to be particularly appealing.  The author, it should be noted, finds Falstaff very appealing, but he has never particularly appealed to me, partly because he is an old man who has never grown up, is somewhat cowardly and disreputable, and not a virtuous person whom I can view with respect nor someone whose definition of fun is close to my own.  I can understand how the author, writing this book as he did in his 80’s, could identify with the themes of death and aging and rejection that the Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V) talk about so movingly with regards to this character, but Falstaff is not someone whom I have identified with, and so while this novel features a great deal of warm charm from the author, the subject of this book is not quite as gripping as many others would be.  Thinking about Falstaff may give the author life, but he doesn’t do very much for me, I must candidly admit, and that is perhaps a bit disappointing.  Yet if you like Falstaff, there is much to enjoy here.

Most of this short book of around 150 pages deals with Falstaff as he appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays.  It should be noted that the character of Falstaff also appears in the Merry Wives of Windsor, but the author only briefly and disparagingly relates the Falstaff in that play as being beneath his notice and bordering if not crossing into self-parody in obedience to royal command.  The book has 21 chapters and most of them consist of close and often intriguing readings of the places where Falstaff appears in the plays.  Many of the discussions relate to the author’s appreciation of Falstaff’s cleverness, his integrity, and his love for whores and sacks of wine, two pleasures I must admit I lack a great interest in.  The author also spends a great deal of time in the book talking about the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, where Falstaff fears the (inevitable) rejection that comes from the hypocritical and somewhat cold Prince Hal, who is destined to be a successful but ephemeral king of England.  The discussions of Falstaff as a father figure to Hal are certainly of interest, and those who like the historical plays of Shakespeare would do well to give this book a respectful read.

Yet although this book is definitely one that I can respect, it’s not a book I particularly enjoyed.  The historical plays of Shakespeare, especially when compared with his enjoyable comedies and thoughtful and melancholy tragedies and his delightful problem plays, have always left me a bit cold.  They are not particularly great histories, and the English elites portrayed in those plays are often pretty loathsome.  Henry V is casual about the deaths of innocent French people and casts off his friend Falstaff in a cruel way, and he is widely thought of as one of the most praiseworthy characters to be found there.  The author certainly does not whitewash it, but a great part of the difference between the author and I is that the author celebrate the largeness of Falstaff’s personality, while I consider him the sort of rot on society that our realms would be better off without.  The difference in the author’s considerable sympathy and fondness and even empathy for Falstaff and my lack of a positive view of it likely accounts for my own rather cold feeling about this book and its subject matter despite the obvious skill in textual criticism that the author possesses.  If you lack my antipathy to Falstaff, though, you will find much more of enjoyment here.

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Book Review: Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom

I picked this book up from the library on a bit of a whim, but as many of these whims go, it was a pretty inspired one, not least because when one reads the writings of Harold Bloom [1], one can generally count on a good read even where one does not always agree with the author’s conclusions.  One of the unfortunate truths of the literature of criticism, whether that criticism is literary, musical, artistic, or about any other genre, is that criticism reveals more about the critic than about the work itself.  This is definitely Grade A criticism to be sure, but in reading a book like this one wants to know what the author thinks and to participate in the conversation about great literature that this book represents.  To be sure, reading about Hamlet is not as good as reading Hamlet, but when one is familiar with Shakespeare’s works, or the works of any other worthwhile writer, it is also good to know what others say about them, for works are great to the extent that they can be interpreted many different ways and possess many worthwhile layers where insight can be drawn from them.

This book is a short one of about 150 pages and consists of twenty-five short chapters about Hamlet that serve as a revision and an extension to a previous book the author wrote on Hamlet where he focused on the question of the authorship of the Ur-Hamlet text, which he does mention here.  The author certainly has a wide-ranging view of Hamlet, looking at Horatio as a stand-in for the prosaic audience (2), the plays within plays that are characteristic of Hamlet’s plot (3), and Hamlet’s unpardonable cruelty towards Ophelia (5).  He writes about the problems that Gertude (8) and Claudius (9) represent in terms of their character, about the wit and humor of the gravedigger (11), and about the troubling question of Fortinbras (18).  Not only does the author talk about the plot and characterization of Hamlet itself, but also about the way that Hamlet serves as a hero of ineffectuality and annihilation (20) and the way that it serves as a fitting discussion of the fusion of high and popular art that one finds so winningly in Shakespeare’s plays (21), the limits of stage drama (22), and even the way that Hamlet serves as a warning for our time about the destructiveness of intellectual ironists (23) and how being a hero of the consciousness (24) means that one’s values as a study has no end (25).

But while the study of Hamlet has no end, this book ends efficiently, an example of someone having a lot to say who does not feel it necessary to belabor his point(s).  Hamlet is the smartest person in the room, and yet he is ineffectual in avenging his father, alienates the woman who loves him, and leaves Denmark under the rule of an adventuresome young Danish prince, for all of his cleverness.  When one looks at Hamlet through the perspective of this work, one wonders if Harold Bloom did not have in mind Hamlet as a cautionary tale for bright young Millennials, pointing out that more than four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote about a woke Danish prince who led his nation into disaster even if his only effectual enemy was himself and even if no one could match his wit and consciousness.  Let that be a lesson to all of us, as this book reminds us that Hamlet is all the more tragic because of having such wasted potential, for all of his talents and abilities cannot ensure that he leaves his country off better off than he found it.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/10/book-review-how-to-read-and-why/

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God’s Not Done

Yesterday, for reasons unknown to me, someone came on this blog looking for information about the Willow Creek church.  Now, I have not read or reviewed any books by the founding and former leading elder of that church, Bill Hybels, but rest assured that I have made myself familiar with what has gone on.  The particular scandal involving this church is one that is all too familiar–a superstar pastor becomes lax about his personal life, is involved in ungodly behavior, defends himself and has others defend him by blaming those whom he victimized, and then there is the slow release of news that ends up confirming a good part (if not all) of what was originally claimed, and in shame the pastor has to resign and the church tries to move on.  Enough people have piled on the Willow Creek church and its leadership team, and I do not think it is right to add to this.  There are certainly many churches where the behavior of leaders is questionable and where the laxity of morals in our corrupt age puts ordinary members in danger from those who have a high reputation because of their writing or speaking abilities but whose personal lives are not being properly self-disciplined.  I do not feel comfortable throwing stones in such a situation.  What I would like to do, though, is comment at least somewhat on the ways that God is not done with this situation and others like it, and what future lessons can be drawn from lamentable situations like this one.

Let us note that God is not done with the people who have been hurt, who had their reputations attacked after they had been abused and taken advantage of by an ungodly but well-known leader.  Such people may find it difficult to trust organizations again–and that is well and proper.  Given my own personal experiences, I think it is best not to trust organizations and institutions.  One can and should support those who preach biblical truth, and those who live biblical lives and set godly examples of lovingkindness, but even the best human being is deeply flawed.  God and Jesus Christ alone deserve our full trust and confidence.  Anyone else is only going to let us down if we trust in them absolutely.  That said, those who are hurt by ungodly behavior can and should led God root out any bitterness that would keep us from loving and respecting others.  At some point we who have been wronged by others need to let go and let God do whatever avenging is necessary, seeing as we too are beings in need of mercy and grace from God and others.

God is not done with Bill Hybels and those other leaders who (wrongly, it appears) stood by him and sought to defend him from the true allegations that were made against his character.  There are some obvious lessons and takeaways from a situation like this from all of those who were involved in leadership in this church.  For one, having a title and having a great deal of respect in the wider world for one’s writing and speaking and having positions within churches does not mean that we are living our lives as God has commanded.  It is very easy for people to compartmentalize their lives so that they serve God part of the time with part of themselves while living in terrible and unconfessed sin with other parts of themselves other parts of the time.  As common as it is, this is not an acceptable way for Christian leaders to live.  Nor is it acceptable for the innocent or wronged to be blamed in order to spare the reputation of those who are in charge.  Let this be a lesson that the honor of God’s church is harmed when leaders behave dishonorably, and that no one has the right to pervert the truth in order to defend a leader who has gone astray.  The truth will set us free, as our Lord and Savoir said, and sometimes the truth sets us free from the power we have sought through ambition and the reputation we have gained through our works, when it is revealed that there is more to our lives than we presented before others as a model for them to follow.  There is always a chance for repentance and reconciliation, but it may require some time in the wilderness and a lot of proving oneself in the harsh light of skeptical eyewitnesses.

God’s not done with the ordinary members in the pews at Willow Creek who were trying to live godly lives and had no idea what was going on in their midst.  We are not always aware of the great evil that is around us, even if we feel the shame that results when leaders fail.  If the leader of your church has ever been on A Current Affair or any other tabloid show or website involving some sort of tawdry and ungodly business, that leader has brought shame and a bad name on all who share that name and that identity.  As followers of Christ, we are harmed when anyone who professes to follow Christ is shown as being as wicked as any of the heathen around us.  It may be possible for new leadership to show that things have changed and to rebuild a better reputation in the future.  It may be necessary for the name to be changed because the reputation has gotten too toxic as so many other institutions and organizations have found out before.  But God isn’t done with you either, even if you were not involved in the situation itself or its repercussions.  Perhaps there will be some lessons of awareness, of comforting those who were hurt and abused, of releasing one’s own frustrations in prayers to God, and in one’s own gracious dealing with others who may be less than generous.

God’s not done with the rest of us either.  Whether we are critics of church abuses, leaders of congregations that seek to benefit from the turmoil affecting Willow Creek, or ordinary believers simply seeking to encourage the best behavior of everyone involved, all of us can stand to learn lessons and take heed of situations like this.  We can wonder if we too have (whether knowingly or not) been a stumbling block to other believers through our own conduct or conversation, and repent.  We can hope and pray that God will reform His Church so that we may be a better example to a world that needs all the good examples on how to live that can possibly be mustered in our corrupt and ungodly age.  We can seek to live live that are above reproach in the knowledge that it is quite easy for others to seek to discredit our message because of the lack of moral probity of the messengers, and that may include we ourselves.  To point fingers is to invite the pointing of many at ourselves as well.  Let us deal with this and with all over examples of this kind with as much grace as we can muster in the knowledge that judgment begins at the house of God, and if the righteous are scarcely saved, what is to be the fate of the wicked?

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Book Review: The Comedians

The Comedians, by Graham Greene

Spoiler alert:  it’s not very funny.  This book carries on the Graham Greene tradition [1] of writing “entertainments” that are not very entertaining.  This is clearly a work of late Greene writing, and if one is familiar with Greene’s writing as a whole, there is a lot about this novel that has some marked similarities with his other writings.  His main character is a bachelor childless Catholic with a deep personal involvement in adultery and a highly cynical view about politics as well as family.  The author is, moreover, so lazy about naming his characters at this point that the titular characters are called Brown, Smith, and Jones because creativity wasn’t high on the author’s agenda.  Moreover, the irony of having a not very funny novel called the Comedians where few of the characters are having any fun at all and only Jones seems to be able to make other people laugh gets more than a little bit sour after a while.  If this is your first or second book by the author it is probably enjoyable enough, but if it’s your tenth it is, sadly, considerably less so.

The plot and setting of this nearly 300 page novel are pretty familiar for avid readers of Greene.  A group of seemingly mismatched passengers find themselves on a slow boat to Haiti–a British hotelier of ambiguous parentage who is engaged in an adulterous affair with the German-born wife of a South American diplomat, an unsuccessful American politician who campaigned for president of the United States in 1948 under the banner of world peace and vegetarianism and his wife, going to Haiti for who knows what reasons, and a mysterious drifter named Jones who runs into immediate trouble upon arriving in Haiti because he is too shady to ignore.  The characters pursue their private goals in Papa Doc-era Haiti while trying to avoid getting killed or beat up too badly, and most of the characters survive to the book’s anticlimactic ending, so long as they are not Haitians, as most of them die in rather brutal and sometimes harrowing ways through the course of the novel.  The author’s protestations to not be very much like the protagonist appear to be protesting a bit too strongly, which is unfortunate because there would be much to enjoy in this novel if it had been less tiresome.

Indeed, the author appears to be trying to use this novel to make a big point, namely that many people live their lives trying to wall themselves off from intimacy and unpleasant truths, and that perhaps not surprisingly these people end up being either politicians (like Mr. Smith), or lonely drifters of one kind or another (Mr. Brown or Mr. Jones).  Being afraid to live and afraid to love does not make for a life that is very much fun, and peopling a novel with such people does not make for one that is very enjoyable to read either.  One wonders if Greene had lived a life like that he writes about here, even if the details of the characters’ lives are certainly fabricated.  Unfortunately, while this book does provide plenty of insights about how terrible it is to live in a third-world dictatorship, the author is largely going through the motions exhibiting his reflexive anti-Americanism, his snobbery, and his lapsed Catholicity for the umpteenth time, and that makes this novel seem pretty tired.  When one goes to the same well over and over again or bathes in the same bathwater repeatedly, one cannot help but expect diminished results each time.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/24/book-review-the-tenth-man/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/24/book-review-no-mans-land/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/23/book-review-the-captain-and-the-enemy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/23/book-review-our-man-in-havana/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/20/book-review-the-third-man-and-the-fallen-idol/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/19/book-review-the-last-word-and-other-stories/

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Book Review: The Ministry Of Fear

The Ministry Of Fear, by Graham Greene

Sometimes even the entertainments of Graham Green are gloomy and morbid, and such is the case here. Few people would consider this to be among Greene’s great books, although even an ordinary book by this author is better than many people can muster up. Sometimes even unsuccessful attempts to avoid cliche as this book is are still instructive, though. In some ways, it could be said that Green was writing a cliched novel in a genre that had not been invented yet, and so the fact that it seems highly cliched to this reader is a sign that one has read a great many later novels that continued in the trend that this novel took with regards to concerns about fifth columnists during World War II and secret service agents. This book is a political thriller of the kind that is written skillfully by many people, and it is a skillful novel, but at the time it was written it was part of an genre of literature that was at best only in its infancy. What this means is that even a novel like this one has at least a considerable degree of importance in terms of its literature, but despite the fact that this importance is easy to recognize, it does not mean that I found this novel necessarily very enjoyable or enlightening.

In terms of its plot, this novel begins with something that appears to be very meaningless and trivial that becomes far more dangerous than it would initially appear. Arthur Rowe is a man who lives a rather quiet and ordinary life until he wins a charity auction for a cake with an answer given to him by a bogus fortune teller, which leads him into deep business involving a shadowy circle of spiritualists who are connected with a fifth column element trying to steal plans and get them to Hitler during World War II. Arthur falls in love (spoiler alert), loses his memory, and ends up a patient in a hospital when he is wanted as a person of interest in what he feels to be a murder case. To make things even more rich, the protagonist himself is someone who was brought up on murder charges for the death of his wife, but was let go because he was judged to have done it as a mercy killing, something which is repeated over and over again, and a great part of what makes me not like this book nearly as much as the author clearly is trying to get the reader to like it. To be sure, the political intrigue of this book is deeply interesting and the author’s interest in avoiding a plot that would criticize the wartime government of Great Britain is at least shrewd and clever, and there is something to be appreciated in that.

Why is it that despite the obvious skill of this novel that I do not really appreciate it all that much, or at least as much as a novel of its skill and genre [1] would indicate? A large part of my unease with this novel comes from the framing. The author is trying to have a difficult problem both ways, by having the world of the novel view mercy killings as something that is easy to forgive and not even judge as a crime at all, even while the protagonist tries to argue that he is a bad guy despite the fact that everyone else in the novel considers him to be a good guy, more or less. And it is that which I find offensive. I do not consider mercy killing an excuse for murder, and so I believe the protagonist to have been a bad guy, or at least a worse guy than he seems willing to concede. The fact that the author tries to present the protagonist as both a good guy as well as a self-flagellating one indicates that the author likely wanted himself to appear like a good guy despite having done things that one might view of as bad. Did the author push someone to abort a baby or drive someone to suicide through abuse or philandering or something like that? If so, it would greatly explain the author’s intent both to be seen as a good guy and be seen as a good guy who considers himself to be a bad guy for something that is wrong but not a wrong that is viewed of as all that evil by a decadent and corrupt society like our own. But to receive the praise of such decadent individuals as a good guy is truly not all that worthwhile.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/07/20/book-review-the-ambler-warning/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/book-review-the-candidate/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/05/05/book-review-trap-the-devil/

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Liveblogging Spectrum Pulse’s 1000 Worst Songs

Alright, every once in a while I like doing a liveblogging experience, and this one is courtesy of music reviewer Spectrum Pulse, who made a list of what he considered to be the 1000 worst songs on Spotify that he curated himself.  Let’s see how many of these I can get through in a row tonight.  The challenge is no pauses, no skips.  This could get interesting.

  1. Clear Blue Sky – Skylar Grey – It’s not so bad.  It reminds me of the sort of Disney Channel music I listened to a lot in my mid-to-late 20’s (long story).  It’s mildly catchy, in other words.
  2. The Finest Things – Colette Carr – This song is definitely tediously repetitive.  This song is almost so bad it’s good territory.  It’s hard to believe that someone recorded this without tongue firmly lodged in cheek.
  3. Hercules – Sara Bareilles – So, the singer of “King Of Anything” and “Love Song” and “Brave” celebrates her favorite cheesy early 1990’s television show/gloriously over-the-top 1990’s Disney movie.  No?  This still isn’t a song I would consider bad.
  4. B.E.A.T. – Selena Gomez – Gloriously bad Selena Gomez deep cuts?  Count me in.  This is the sort of obscure music listening experience that I mine for odd trivia.  She got me saying “Ayo,” I’m tired of using technology, like autotune.
  5. Reverse Running – Atoms For Peace- This isn’t a band or song I’m familiar with, but the music is at least mildly intriguing for a droning piece.  So far I haven’t heard anything that would make me rage quit.  Indeed, it’s been a great soundtrack for reading about lonely places around the world from Pico Iyer.
  6. Better Than Me – The Brilliancy – Are you sure this isn’t the best list?  This is an enjoyable piece of pop rock with glorious chords and riffs and a driving drum beat.  This is the sort of song I listen to for fun.  I get the feeling Mark Grondin and I might have very different tastes in music.
  7. Give It 2 U – Robin Thicke f/Kendrick Lamar (?!) – You know, I think I heard this one live when I watched Robin Thicke in concert.  It was popular with the ladies, but it comes off as pretty cringy.  The harmony and falsetto is pretty humorous.  This is gloriously bad with the right sort of self-parodic notes.
  8. Trust Me – Backstreet Boys – A late-era Backstreet Boys song I’m not familiar with?  This sounds excellent.  Seriously, if this is supposed to make me rage quit in frustration at bad music, Mr. Grondin of Spectrum Pulse clearly is not bringing his A-game.  This is an enjoyable and catchy song, far from one of the worst ever.
  9. Fracking Fluid Injection – The Knife – This is a song that I’m not familiar with, and the best thing I can say about it is that it sounds odd and experimental.  Wait, it lasts ten minutes?  Well, it certainly is odd, and while I don’t think I would ever pay money for this song, it has a certain strange charm, sounding like a dying seagull.
  10. Passenger Side – Jay Sean – Sadly, all I have are books and a crutch on the passenger side, but this isn’t a bad song.  It’s catchy and poppy and at only 3 minutes, it’s a breath of fresh air after having nearly ten minutes of dying avian sounds on the previous song.
  11. Air Bud – Kurt Vile – Is this a song from the soundtrack of the same name?  I don’t know, but the music and lyrics are odd and quite enjoyable.  It’s not vile at all, rather adorably eccentric.  How is this a bad song?
  12. Dead Nature – Savages – This track is, um, experimental, but blessedly short at only about 2 minutes long.  It sounds like the soundtrack to my head when walking around looking for my car after a concert in Portland hoping I don’t get mugged by leftist hipsters.  Savages seems an appropriate title.
  13. Population Control – Pop. 1280 – This is a strange name for a song, but the singing of this song is barely audible over the industrial music.  This is the sort of music I remember being popular at the underground radio station KUSC I was a dj for during my undergraduate years, something that makes me feel almost nostalgic.
  14. Blue Agent – Deerhunter – This song has a catchy melodic line, and its singing is appealingly alternative.  I can’t see this is one of the 1000 worst songs ever.  It’s something I would happily listen to on the radio.
  15. That’s My Kind Of Night – Luke Bryan – It’s time for some bro country.  I wonder what took so long for this to happen.  As far as bro country goes, one could get a lot worse.  The vocal track is clean at least.  This is pretty solid pop country.
  16. Heavenfaced – The National – This is a gloomy track, but it is about ultimate subjects, and I happen to be one of those people who likes the voice of the lead singer of the band as well as the reflective nature of the music of the song.  Again, this is a pleasant, if moody, song.
  17. Dump Dump – A$AP Ferg – This is not a very good song, but let us hope he was not taking himself too seriously.  This is one of those many songs where someone brags about stealing your girl.  Who can relate?  Woo.  The lyrics to this song are a bit on the nose, even for this genre.
  18. Paper Doll – John Mayer – I actually like this song, since it is part of a genre of celebrity diss songs that I appreciate, being John Mayer’s side of the story about his brief and ill-fated relationship with Taylor Swift.  I like how the song combines being almost delicate with being savage at the same time.
  19. 523 – Earl Sweatshirt – More odd experimental music!  I like the drums here and the guitar riff.  The music sounds unsettling, droning, even a bit creepy, but intentionally so.  Area Code 523 is for what area?  Hmm, a geographic area used in scam calls?  That’s creepy.
  20. The Universe Expanded – Franz Ferdinand – This is an enjoyable if somewhat repetitive song, worthwhile to get to know the music of this band a bit better.  Deep cuts!
  21. M.O.N.E.Y. – The 1975 – I wonder if this is what the band’s lead singer meant when he said his band was doing big band better than almost anyone else?  It’s not bad.  The autotune vocals and odd sound effects are almost endearing.  Is that gunfire?  *Boom*
  22. All Time Low – Nine Inch Nails – More industrial music 🙂  Again, I don’t see how this is one of the 100 worst songs.  NIN certainly made worse music, but the music here is somewhat melodic, and that’s a good thing.
  23. Controversy – Natalia Kills – This song is spoken word and nothing particularly great.  It’s a song that thinks it is edgy but it’s not really edgy.  It’s almost endearing in its naivite.  Almost.
  24. Right There – Ariana Grande f/Big Sean – It’s an interesting mixture between teen pop and something trying very hard to be credible rap.  Gang vocals?  Slightly syncopated music?  Nasally and somewhat incomprehensible vocals?  Yes, yes, and yes.  It’s a classic deep cut from Ariana Grande.  If Mark Grondin wanted to showcase some really bad Ariana Grande he could have put “God Is A Woman” on here, but this is far better.
  25. L.G.Q. – Syndrome – More odd experimental music with driving drums and delightfully alarm-like synth riffs and some ponderous poetic lyrics.  I could see myself recording something like this.
  26. Don’t Hold The Wall – Justin Timberlake – This is an odd song, but not a bad one.  In fact, I find it rather humorous in a ramshakle way.  Deep cuts of famous artists are often greatly entertaining, as album filler and evidence of an artist trying something that isn’t immediately popular, but is honestly quirky.
  27. No. 1 Party Anthem – Artic Monkeys – This song is deliberately ironic.  I like it a lot, actually, given that I’m a fairly melancholic sort of person and this song is precisely that sort of song, with a gorgeous instrumental line.
  28. Love’s Poster Child – Keith Urban – I must admit that while I generally like Keith Urban, this is a song of his I’m not very familiar with.  It’s an enjoyable song, with solid instrumentation and a catchy melody.  The curator’s song choices baffle me.  So far on this list of supposedly hideous and atrocious songs there have not been that many songs that I view as less than meh, and only “Dump Dump” has been a dumpster fire of a song.
  29. It’s Code – Janelle Monae – This is an enjoyable throwback song.  Again, there is no way that this is even among the 1000 worst songs of the year it was released in, much less of the Spotify era.  This is a smooth song that is enjoyable to listen to about a relationship that didn’t go well.  Who can relate?  Me :/.
  30. Where U Been?  2 Chainz f/Cap 1 – This isn’t a great song, but it’s humorous in its badness.  It’s one of those ridiculous rap songs that is sort of a brag rap about working hard and paying one’s debts and getting paid.  I’ve been getting money there the @#@^ you been?
  31. Beat It – Sean Kingston, Chris Brown, and Wiz Khalifa – I must admit that I take a perverse pleasure in getting to know new Chris Brown songs.  This one is probably slicker than his average, which isn’t saying much, although it is nowhere near as good as the Michael Jackson song of the same name.
  32. Dear Boy – Avicii – The late Avicii shows up (finally?) on this list with a piece of poignant dance pop.  It is amazing how the early death of an artist can take a fairly ordinary song as this one and add layers of deep emotional resonance given the passing nature of a career and a life.
  33. March Madness – LMNO, Rakaa, and DJ Romes – This is some flex rapping, but it’s not incompetently done.  I mean, it’s not hte best song ever, but it’s at least midly amusing and it shows some competence in its flow.
  34. Plenty Of Girls In The Sea – MGMT – This song sounds rather cute and humorous, making fun of the cliche that there are plnety of fish in the sea.   The music is delightfully odd, to suit the strange lyrics.  Again, this is not a bad tune by any means.
  35. Banana Pancakes – Billy Currington – This song is like many of the other songs I am familiar with from this artist, in that it is a charming and homespun sort of song, a type of country song I am fond of in its laid-back way.
  36. Seagull – Bill Callahan – This is a rather sparse sort of song, about seagulls no less (see above comment on “The Knife”).  It’s about 11:30PM, so I’m going to let this playlist go on during the night, serving as the soundtrack to my dreams/nightmares.  We’ll see if I wake up and what my thoughts are in the morning when I wake up.  So far, this is not a terrible collection of songs at all.
  37. ?? I don’t know how many songs played while I was resting or sleeping or starting to get ready this morning, but now I’m listening to “Sweet November” by SZA.  It’s a pleasant, low-key song.  Earlier there were some country songs, dance pop, and even an amusing song by Lorde.  None of it was the music of nightmares.  I think I’ll leave it at this.
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