On cars and science

I had several ideas for posts to write this evening: I was going to write about the haircut I had this morning. I was also going to write about the fact that, after hounding me for months to donate blood, the Red Cross refused this afternoon to take my blood. I also had some Christmas memories and observations to share. All those will have to wait. I have something else to say.

This began as a conversation on a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here). IB referenced Genesis 1:3—“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” John responded that photons did not exist for the first four hundred million years of the history of the universe. John went on to say that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, suggesting that God and his Word have nothing to do with the existence of the universe, the Earth, or light.

I suggested that we could visit the highway and determine the speed of the passing cars; knowing their speed and their direction, we can use a map to find where each car was one hour ago and where it will be one hour from now. The problem with that assumption is, of course, that cars have drivers who make decisions about the motion of the cars. Knowing how fast it is going this minute does not tell me whether that car was sixty miles away an hour ago or was sitting in a nearby parking lot until a few minutes ago.

Science can measure mass and energy in the present and can make predictions about the past and the future, but only with the assumption that the universe is a closed system. If any supernatural being can enter the universe and change things, then science has a problem. Years of observation have determined that on very few occasions do things happen that could not have been predicted by science. Some call these miracles and take them as proof of an intelligent being who is beyond science; others are determined to say that miracles never happen. They insist that every recorded miracle is faulty information, recorded by unscientific people who were tricked by others or by their own imaginations. This leads to circular reasoning, which first defines miracles as impossible and then uses that definition to discredit every record of a miracle.

So let us study cars scientifically. I have seen cars in a parking lot. They are physical objects, hollow metal boxes with some moving parts that I did not take time to study thoroughly. I did not notice any drivers in the parked cars I observed. Now we know that a moving object tends to remain in motion and an object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless outside forces are at work on that object. Therefore, if no drivers were required to keep those cars in the parking lot at rest, I assume that no drivers are required to keep moving cars on the highway in motion. In fact, given my observation of moving cars on the highway, I find it highly unlikely that any intelligent being is in control of the motion of those cars.

Now John (or someone like him) can present me with literature about cars, literature that demonstrates the existence of drivers, but I am free to laugh away his literature as the deluded imaginings of unscientific writers. (Of course they are unscientific—they believe in drivers!)  John can tell me that he has met drivers and has spoken with them—that he has even ridden with them in cars. I cannot test the experiences of John to know whether he has really met a driver or only thinks that it happened. John can try to explain certain irregularities in the behavior of some of those moving cars that reveal the presence of an intelligent driver, but John may be disregarding physical laws and forces that require the cars to move in the way we both observe. John may even try to point out drivers to me as the cars move past us on the highway, but my radar gun only detects moving cars. It cannot tell me anything about drivers inside those cars, and therefore I am free not to believe in them.

I am not at any great risk if I refuse to believe that cars are operated by drivers. I will be sure to keep my distance from any moving cars, all the more so since I don’t expect them to be operated by intelligent beings. People like John are at a greater risk if they refuse to believe that a God created the universe. The God who made all things has the right to tell his creatures how to behave. He has the right to punish those who break his commandments. Ironically, John judges God as wicked and malevolent because the Creator does not follow John’s rules regarding creation and miracles. I suggested to John that God might call John the same things if John does not follow God’s rules. J.

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Christ in Genesis: “Am I in the place of God?”

After Jacob died, his sons feared that Joseph may have been delaying his vengeance until that time. Their guilty consciences made it hard for them to believe that Joseph sincerely and whole-heartedly forgave their sins. Therefore, they sent a message to Joseph. They claimed that, before he died, Jacob had demanded forgiveness from Joseph for his brothers. We cannot tell whether or not Jacob said such a thing. No record of Jacob’s message about forgiveness appears in Genesis, aside from the quote given by Joseph’s brothers. Their guilt and fear may have tempted them into lying to their brother. It did not matter, though, because Joseph had already forgiven his brothers all their sins.

Before he died, Jesus commanded his followers to forgive those who sin against us. He even put into his model prayer a promise to forgive those who sin against us. Jesus spoke so firmly about forgiveness that some Christians believe that forgiving those who hurt us is a requirement for salvation. They think that the Bible says that we must forgive first so that God will forgive us. They forget that God always goes first. We forgive others only because of the forgiveness of God. We forgive others, passing along the forgiveness won by Jesus on the cross. Refusing to forgive someone who has hurt us calls God’s complete forgiveness into question. If a sin against us is too big for God to forgive, how can we be sure that he has forgiven all our sins? But we do not forgive sinners out of the goodness of our hearts. We forgive sinners because Jesus has already purchased their forgiveness by his blood, his suffering, and his death.

Why does God allow sins to happen, knowing that we will be hurt by the sins of others? In the abstract, Christians can find answers to that question. Dealing with a specific sin, we do not always know which answer applies. In the case of Joseph, he was allowed to know the answer to that question. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph reports, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many people are alive today.” God permitted the sin of Joseph’s brothers so Joseph could sit at the right hand of Pharaoh and run Egypt, saving the lives of the Egyptian people and of their neighbors, including Joseph’s family.

Sometime God allows sin and evil so we can see the true nature of sin and evil and reject them, preferring what is good. Sometimes God allows sin and evil because he has a way of turning them into a greater blessing, as he did in the case of Joseph. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to provide an opportunity for his people to do good things, forgiving the sinner and helping the victims of sin. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to remind his people of the suffering of Christ on the cross. The devil persecutes God’s people, intended to make us doubt God’s goodness or love or power. When our troubles remind us how God saved us through the suffering of his Son, the devil is thwarted and God’s Kingdom remains victorious.

God does not cause evil, although even evil things come from his creation. Evil is not equal to good; evil is good that has been twisted and misused. God placed metal in the ground and gave skill to a craftsman who makes a knife from that metal. When that knife is used in a murder, God is not at fault. He permitted that sin for a reason, and he provided the ways that sin could take place. If he allowed that sin and did not intervene to prevent that sin (and only God knows how many times he has intervened to prevent evil), then he had a reason to allow that sin. God is under no obligation to tell us all his reasons.

“Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asked his brothers when they came to Joseph looking for forgiveness. The way he phrased the question, he expected the answer to be “no.” Yet as a picture of Christ, his forgiveness was Christ’s forgiveness. He had authority to punish his brothers or to forgive them. He was indeed in the place of God, and his forgiveness was a vivid picture of God’s forgiveness given freely to sinners.

When Peter declared his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus congratulated Peter on that declaration and added, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven, and whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). Later, Jesus said the same words to all his apostles (Matthew 18:18). After he had died and had risen from the dead, Jesus said the same thing a third time. John says that Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever you forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven, and whatever you do not forgive on earth is not forgiven in heaven” (John 20:22-23).

Who has the keys to heaven? Who has the power to forgive sins (or to withhold forgiveness)? Everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has this power. Since we know that “no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12: 3), everyone who confesses faith in Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Everyone who, like Peter, knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is able to share his forgiveness with sinners.

Why would Jesus also give the power to lock heaven, to refuse forgiveness to sinners? He tells us not to give dogs what is holy and not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). We do not speak words of forgiveness to people who boast of their sins, who refuse to admit that what they are doing is wrong, who do not want to be forgiven. God calls sinners to repent. Because we have the keys to heaven, we also call sinners to repent. Our goal is always to lead sinners to repent so we can forgive them. Yet our words of forgiveness would have no meaning if we said them to everyone, even to sinners who proudly continue to sin and who do not care whether or not God has forgiven them.

“Am I in the place of God?” Since he was a picture of the Christ, Joseph should have been answered “yes.” “Am I in the place of God?” Jesus says, “Yes, you are.” He could bring forgiveness to sinners any way he chose. After purchasing full forgiveness on the cross, Jesus chose to bring forgiveness to sinners through the work of his Church. Every member of that Church has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. Every person on earth is either a missionary or a mission opportunity.

Like Adam, like Abel, like Abraham and Isaac and Esau, Joseph was a picture of Christ. Today, in a different way, every Christian is a picture of Christ. (That is why we are called Christians.) God wanted ancient people to know his plan of salvation, and he wants people today to know the same plan. He chooses to work with us–his will be done. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Lion of the Tribe of Judah

Before he died, Jacob gathered his sons and prophesied about their future. Beginning with the oldest, he worked his way through each son, speaking of what would happen to their families. His longest blessing was reserved for Judah, the son through whom the messianic promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be fulfilled.

Jacob began by saying that Judah’s brothers would praise him and that his father’s sons would bow down before him. At this time, such statements would have been more appropriate to describe Joseph, who was running Egypt and was using his authority to take care of his family. When the children of Israel returned to the Promised Land and defeated the Canaanites, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (descended from Joseph) dominated northern Israel while the tribe of Judah dominated in the south. The first king, Saul, came from the tribe of Benjamin, but the most successful dynasty of Israel was that of David, who came from the tribe of Judah.

Jacob spoke of that dynasty and of the messianic King who would come from David’s family. “Judah is a lion’s cub,” Jacob said. “From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Revelation 5:5 associates Jesus with this verse, saying, “Behold: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Satan is also called a lion in the Bible, though he is more often connected with a serpent, the form he chose to use to deceive Eve. Yet Jesus is also represented by a serpent in Numbers 21, as Jesus himself affirms in John 3:14-15.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes,” Jacob said. Commentaries on Genesis devote pages to deciphering the identity of Shiloh. A city of this name was built and for a time was home to the Tabernacle, but the city was probably named for the promise, rather than the promise predicting the city. “Shiloh” appears related to “Shalom,” which means peace, and some interpreters have suggested that the promise was fulfilled with Solomon, the son of David. Yet the best interpretation of this verse is that Shiloh is another name for the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Solomon was only another picture of Jesus, but Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. When Roman authority placed Herod, the Idumean, over the Jews, then it was time for the true King of the Jews to be born.

“To him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.” All these images are fulfilled in Jesus. He rode a colt, the foal of a donkey, into Jerusalem. He declared to his followers, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.” He shed his blood on the cross to rescue sinners, but a few hours earlier he held a cup of wine in his hands and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Before he died, his own clothing was taken away by the soldiers; but through his death, Jesus has clothed his people in his righteousness. As Adam and Eve were clothed by God, and as Jacob was accepted by Isaac because of Esau’s clothing, and as the brothers of Joseph brought the blood-stained robe of Joseph to their father, so we are clothed in Christ, washed clean in his blood, and made acceptable to our Father.

By his prophecy, Jacob prepared his family for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of David, the Prince of Peace, the Redeemer of the world. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, set to rule all nations under his scepter and to bring peace to the entire world.

Santa’s helper

One December afternoon a number of years ago, I stopped by a nursing home to visit a member of my church. She happened to be attending a holiday program in the cafeteria, so I stopped by there to see her. The residents were being entertained by a jolly plump man in a fancy suit. No, the suit was not red, and the jolly plump man did not have a white beard. Santa was present, but he was not entertaining anyone. He was leaning against the back wall of the room with a bored look on his face. The man with the microphone was wearing a gem-spangled white suit. He had dark hair and long sideburns. He was singing one of his big hits—I no longer remember if it was “Love Me Tender” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or which song it was.

Yes, the King was upstaging good old Santa Claus, and Santa did not seem to appreciate it one bit. But that passing moment opened a new chapter in my family’s holiday lore. Since that day, I have told my children that Elvis lives at the North Pole with Santa. During the year, Elvis makes toys for Santa to bring to children on Christmas Eve. Elvis helps Santa manage his database recording who has been naughty and who has been nice. Elvis is Santa’s helper, and if you thought Santa is assisted by elves, you have simply been hearing that name wrong all these years.

Of course we will have to rewrite some of the Christmas songs and poems and books. The man in red and the man in white are a holiday team, working together so that none of us has to face a Blue Christmas. Together they deck the halls, ring the bells, and rock around the Christmas tree. Together they bring Christmas joy to every girl and every boy around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas decorations shows Santa kneeling in prayer at the manger. Surely someone can create an image that has Elvis also at the manger, kneeling to honor the King of kings. That scene would go a long way toward bringing to the world the real meaning of Christmas.

To each of you, and to all those who are special to you, I wish a very Merry Christmas. J.

 

Christ in Genesis: At the right hand

Throughout history, certain kings and emperors and other executive authorities have enjoyed the privilege of rule without accepting any of the responsibility of rule. Sometimes they were considered too important to do the work of government. Sometimes they were incompetent. Sometimes they were merely lazy. In every case, someone else was found to do the real work of governing the land. Joseph became such a man in Egypt. After interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, predicting seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt, collecting supplies during the good times to take care of people during the bad times. Joseph ran Egypt, while the Pharaoh sat on the throne and enjoyed the worship of his people. In a similar way, in the book of Esther, first Haman and then Mordecai took royal authority in Persia. The real emperor sat on the throne, but his prime ministers did the work of running the empire.

We call such a power a “right hand man.” As the right hand of the king or emperor, he does the work to run the country while the chief executive gets the credit. Medieval France had a “mayor of the palace” doing the real work while the Merovingian kings got all the credit. Medieval Japan had a Shogun doing the real work while the Japanese emperors got all the credit. Modern corporations and universities often have a President who receives all the credit while a presidential assistant is doing the real work that brings success to the business.

After his resurrection, Jesus told his apostles, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The apostle Paul shared the same message in a different way, saying that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Ephesians 1:20 and Colossians 3:1, among others). The right hand of the Father is not a ceremonial position. Sitting at the Father’s right hand means doing the work of the Father. Because Jesus has been given power and authority by the Father, Jesus is the only Way to approach the Father. Those who try to come to God the Father through their own good deeds, or because they were created by him, cannot reach the Father. Only through Christ can the Father be approached.

As the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph had power to reward people and power to punish people. Though they did not recognize Joseph, his brothers placed themselves under his power when they came to buy food in Egypt. Joseph, unlike Jesus, was not sinless. He could not resist the temptation to toy with his brothers before he finally told them who he was. Like Christ, though, Joseph forgave his brothers all their sins against him. He provided generously for his family without accepting any payment from them. In the end, he brought them to live with him, as Jesus brings his people into Paradise and into the new creation. Our sins caused Jesus to suffer, as the sins of his brothers caused Joseph to suffer. Yet Jesus does not hold a grudge against any of us. He forgives us, he provides for us now, and he has guaranteed us a home where we will live with him forever in peace and joy. J.

The other Joseph

While I am studying Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis, I am also learning about Joseph the husband of Mary in the book of Matthew. Beyond sharing a name, the two men are similar in other ways as participants in God’s plan to save his people from their enemies.

Mary’s husband is called a carpenter in English translations of the Bible, but “builder” might be a better translation of his occupation. Joseph probably worked more with stone than with wood, and he helped to build more houses and public buildings than tables and chairs. When the wise men came with gifts for the King of the Jews, they found Jesus and his mother in a house in Bethlehem–Joseph may have built that house during the infancy of Jesus. Joseph appears to have died between the childhood of Jesus (He is mentioned when Jesus is twelve.) and the preaching career of Jesus when Jesus was in his thirties. From the cross, Jesus assigned his mother to the care of his disciple John, something he would not have done if Joseph were still alive.

Early Christian traditions assign later ages to both Mary and Joseph, but those traditions are based more on Greek attitudes about marriage and family than on life for Palestinian Jews of the first century. Mary was probably fifteen years old, give or take a year, when an angel appeared to her and told her that she would have a son without the help of a man. Joseph was probably about thirty then. Women were married when they were in their teens, but men did not marry until they were successful in their careers and could support families. Nevertheless, marriages were based on love as well as convenience. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which was a formal agreement between Joseph and Mary’s parents (but which probably included Mary’s acceptance and approval of Joseph as a husband). The wedding had not yet happened, but no doubt wedding plans were being made. On the day of the wedding, the groom with his friends would come to the house of the bride and escort the bride and her family and friends to his house. The celebration of the event included food and drink, music and dancing, and much merry-making. Communities looked forward to the joy of a wedding, and many wedding celebrations lasted several days.

Imagine Joseph’s consternation when he learned that Mary was going to give birth to a baby. Joseph knew that he was not the baby’s father. He had the right to demand that Mary be punished, even that she be stoned to death by the community for the sin of adultery. No doubt he found it impossible to believe Mary’s story of an announcement by an angel about her son. Being a righteous man, Joseph did not want Mary killed, so he was planning a quiet divorce–breaking the betrothal before the wedding could take place–when an angel spoke to him and explained the situation to him.

When Joseph accepted his pregnant bride, the whole town of Nazareth must have smiled and winked. Joseph was acting like a man who had been enjoying the privileges of a husband before the wedding day. That happened from time to time, then as now, and people knew that such behavior was sinful, but they tended to regard it as a natural fault rather than a grave sin. To protect Mary and her child, Joseph was willing to allow the appearance of guilt in his life, even though he had done nothing that was wrong. Joseph son of Jacob, in Egypt, was also treated as guilty though he had done nothing wrong. His master’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, and for that he was thrown into prison. Both men named Joseph became pictures of Jesus, who also was punished for sins he did not commit, taking guilt upon himself that others would be spared and protected.

In Egypt, Joseph son of Jacob was able to care for his father and brothers and their families. He became their protector during the famine and kept them safe from hunger. In Nazareth and Bethlehem, Joseph Mary’s husband was also a protector. Mary and her son would have been vulnerable to poverty and starvation had Joseph not taken her as his wife. In this way also, both men are pictures of Jesus who protects his people in a world that is filled with dangers.

Finally, dreams are important to both men. While he was a teen, Joseph son of Jacob had dreams that foretold the future, picturing how his family would bow down to him and honor him. Later, he interpreted the dreams of others. Joseph Mary’s husband heard from angels in a series of dreams that guided him to make Mary his wife, to take her to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus, and to return to the Promised Land after the death of King Herod. Not every dream is a message from God. Most of our dreams are shaped either by our hopes or by our fears. When he chooses, though, God can communicate through dreams, as he did in the case of both men named Joseph. Before accepting a dream as a message from God, though, the dreamer should first compare that dream to the message of God recorded in the Bible. If the dream contradicts the Bible in any way, the dream is just a dream and no message from God. J.

 

Christ in Genesis: Joseph & Bros.

Jacob begot twelve sons and at least one daughter. They were conceived by Jacob’s two wives, sisters Leah and Rachel, and by the servants of each of those wives. Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, and her firstborn son was Joseph. To show his preference for Joseph, Jacob gave him a formal garment, usually described in English as “a coat of many colors.”

Like Jesus, Joseph was the son who was favored by his father. Like Jesus, Joseph was hated because of the special relationship he had with his father. Joseph’s own brothers rejected him, as Jesus’ own people rejected him. While Joseph was obeying the will of his father, his brothers seized him violently and plotted his death. They ended up selling him for a certain number of pieces of silver (twenty, not thirty). Before they did so, however, they threw him into a pit in the ground, not intending to bring him out alive again. In this way, Joseph acted out the death and burial of Jesus, as well as his rejection and betrayal from his own people.

The picture of Christ in the life of Joseph becomes even clearer because of his formal garment. When his brothers seized Joseph, they stripped him of his coat of many colors. To deceive their father, they stained the coat with animal blood and brought it to their father. They claimed to have found it in a field, and their phony concern for their brother was expressed in terms of, “We hope nothing bad happened to poor little Joe.” Jacob believed the evidence of his son’s death. He accepted the sons who brought him evidence of Joseph’s death, little realizing that they had, in fact, plotted that death and only narrowly turned aside from killing Joseph.

As Isaac was deceived by Jacob because Jacob was wearing Esau’s clothing, so Jacob is deceived by his sons because of the clothing they bring to him. As Christians, we approach our heavenly Father wearing the righteousness of Jesus. We are not holy. We are not worthy of God’s approval. We do not deserve to approach him at all, let alone be claimed by him as sons. Yet, because we come to the Father clothed in Christ’s righteousness, he accepts us. He calls us his children, says that he loves us, and declares that he is well pleased with us.

The garment we bring to our Father is also stained with blood. Jesus died a bloody death to take away our sins. Our heavenly Father claims us, not only because of the righteousness of Christ, but also because of the blood of Christ. Animals once represented Christ on the altars of the Old Testament, as an animal shed its blood to take the place of Joseph. Now that Jesus has suffered and died, we no longer sacrifice animals to God. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice of which all the bulls and lambs and goats of the Old Testament Law were pictures.

Meanwhile, as a slave in Egypt, Joseph suffered further indignities. He did the will of his master and did not fall short of expectations, yet he became the victim of a lie. Potiphar’s wife claimed that Joseph attacked her and tried to rape her, when the truth was that she had tried to seduce Joseph. Once again, Joseph’s clothing was presented as evidence, this time condemning him to punishment he did not deserve. Joseph suffered in Egypt while doing the right thing, just as Jesus suffered on the cross while doing the right thing. Both were sentenced by Gentile governments, yet in the end both prevailed in time over those same governments. After a few years, Joseph was running Egypt. After about three hundred years, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. J.

Vladimir Nabokov

Earlier this month a woman told me that her mother’s writings are as good as Nabokov’s. In a situation like that, one can only smile and nod, even while one’s mind is silently screaming, “No! No one writes as well as Nabokov!”

The Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century American writers consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Of the four, only Faulkner even approaches Nabokov’s ability to paint with the English language, and Faulkner tended to stray a bit too often into stream of consciousness writing and other tricks. Nabokov was a master of written communication. The most amazing fact about Nabokov’s skill with English is that English was not his first or second language. He was born and grew up in Russia, learning to speak and to write in Russian and French. He learned English later, after his family had fled Russia. Yet his later novels are written in English, and his earlier novels were translated from Russian to English under his supervision. Both sets of novels sing in a lyrical manner unapproached by any other writer of the last hundred years and more.

Hemingway in particular is credited with crisp, succinct writing which has influenced thousands of composition and journalism classes. Gone are the long Dickensian descriptions found in nineteenth century English literature. Yet Nabokov accomplished something in English that Hemingway and Steinbeck never approached. Nabokov had a profound sense of the sound and rhythm of language. As a master he toyed with language. His mind was capable of creating descriptions of people and events that are multi-textured, complex without becoming verbose. When I read a Hemingway story, I might think, “I never imagined that character or setting or plot, but if I had, I could have written this story.” When I read a Nabokov story, I ask, “How did he do that? And why is it that I cannot do that?”

I just happen to be reading the short stories and novels of Nabokov this month. Currently I am savoring The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I saw one brief example of Nabokov’s mastery of expression last night, as the title character describes his social awkwardness by calling himself a “colorblind chameleon.” Who but Nabokov could have expressed so much with but two English words?

Tragically, Nabokov is best-known for Lolita, a novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a “nymphet,” a prepubescent girl to whom he is drawn emotionally and physically. The subject is uncomfortable; and, because he writes from the man’s point of view, Nabokov does not directly condemn his character’s thoughts and his actions. Notoriously, the book is frequently banned. Two movies have been made from the book, the first directed by genius Stanley Kubrick and starring genius Peter Sellers–not as the main character, but as his nemesis, Clare Quilty. (The name itself is a beautiful visual pun.) While Lolita contains as much of Nabokov’s skillful writing as any other novel he wrote, the subject matter tends to guide people into the false assumption that Nabokov himself must be perverted. Nabokov makes his characters so convincing, so real, that a reader almost expects each of them to be somehow an autobiographical image of the author.

My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. The heart of the book is a poem of 999 lines–the thousandth line is missing–but the bulk of the book consists of a preface and annotations by a second character, the poet being the first character. The relationship between the poem and poet on the one hand, and the interpreter on the other hand, is displayed astoundingly throughout the book. While it contains a wealth of literary tidbits of the highest quality (such as “Chapman’s Homer” referring simultaneously to a particular translation of an ancient Greek poet and to a more recent success on the baseball diamond), the entire novel contains levels of meaning and significance that can hardly be described, certainly not without spoiling the charm of the book.

Aside from writing, Nabokov’s passions included chess, butterflies, and opposition to totalitarian governments. A little awareness of these topics assists a reader of Nabokov. (For example, Sebastian Knight has a close associate named Clare Bishop.) Lack of awareness of these matters does not keep any reader from enjoying Nabokov’s work. Many of his clever jokes are discovered only during a second or third reading, when the reader can set aside plot and character and instead swim in the flow of Nabokov’s unequalled prose. J.

First Friday Fiction (a little late this month)

Dear family and friends,

It has been great receiving your Christmas cards this year and reading your letters. Congratulations on the spectacular accomplishments of your children and on the wonderful vacations you have taken in the past year.

Our older son graduated from college eighteen months ago and is still looking for a job in his field. If you know of a laboratory or corporation that is hiring chemists, please drop him a line. Meanwhile, he continues to develop his skills mixing paint at Home Depot, which at least supplies him money for rent and groceries.

Our daughter left college last winter and spent three months in the hospital. They have changed her medication a couple of times, and she seems to have stabilized. Of course some days are harder than others for her. She was employee of the month at the McDonalds on the highway in October. Meanwhile, she remains very popular, as she receives letters and phone calls nearly every day from collection agencies that want to discuss her student loans and medical bills.

Our younger son is adjusting to life at the military academy, and his parole officer believes that he has turned the corner in making good decisions. Best of all, the owners of the car have dropped their lawsuit.

The Mrs. and I were not able to get away for a vacation this summer, although we did spend some pleasant Sunday afternoons at the free museums downtown. We also had some pleasant hikes at the two nearby state parks. We did have the opportunity to travel out of state in September for the funeral of my mother-in-law, and we agree with everyone there who said that the family ought to get together once in a while for happier occasions.

My back is steadily improving from last year’s fall down the stairs when the dog attacked me. What a relief it was to learn that the dog did not have rabies! I carry a can of pepper spray on my route now, but I haven’t had to use it yet. Of course the bag of mail has gotten a lot heavier the last two months with all the advertisements and holiday greetings. It’s such a pleasure to be back on the job, though, that I really don’t mind the extra weight.

The Mrs. sends her greetings. She has decided to stay with the housecleaning business for the foreseeable future, although most of her coworkers are younger than she is. She says that she could write a fascinating gossip column for the paper about the things she has learned about people by cleaning their houses.

I guess that’s about all the news from our household this Christmas. We wish you blessings for the new year, and we hope that 2017 is even better for all of you than 2016 has been.

The basement

As I’ve written before, I grew up in a ranch house with a full basement. A lot happened down in the basement, including some spectacular floods.

The washing machine and clothes drier were down there, along with a chest freezer and a second refrigerator. My parents stored frozen vegetables and fruits from the garden in the freezer, and also had shelves of canned fruits, jellies, applesauce, and the like. One of my mother’s hobbies was ceramics, which she taught to 4-H children and also to ladies from the church. Year-round, the ladies would gather once a week in the basement to prepare items for their annual Christmas sale. Most of them were cast in molds; my mother had a large collection of molds, glazes, and a kiln for firing the ceramics.

Two of my father’s hobbies were woodworking and photography. He had a fairly complete work area in one corner of the basement with a table saw and other tools. In another corner he assembled a darkroom in which he printed photographs he had taken. When he built the darkroom, he also made a second room which he intended to be a recreation room. It had a tile floor and wood panel walls. A ping pong table was in the room, but gradually it accumulated various items for storage, so not much recreation happened there.

Twelve wooden stairs led down from the back entry to the basement. There were four steps and then a landing (which held the cat’s litter box), and then a turn to the right and eight more steps down to the basement floor. Next to those steps was the furnace that heated the house in the winter. When I was young, I kept some of my toys in the cubbyhole underneath the steps and landing.

My parents never threw away a cardboard box, because one never knows when one will need a box of a certain size. I remember a huge mountain of boxes in the basement when I was younger. Of course when the basement was flooded, the cardboard was ruined and had to be discarded. Most of the molds survived and were usable again after they had thoroughly dried. The freezer floated and tipped over, spilling its contents, which (needless to say) also had to be discarded.

Aside from the recreation room and darkroom, the floor of the basement was concrete. It had a number of cracks through which water would seep on rainy days. A sump pump kept the basement relatively dry except during major floods, but most summers the basement had a musty smell.

Our first major flood was caused by a heavy rainfall in the summer. The second major flood, a few years later, happened because of an early spring rain while there was still snow on the ground. We had no heat in the house because of that flood; the pilot light of the furnace was below the level of the floodwater. More floods followed. When the creek was high and water was seeping through the cracks in the floor, my parents and I would try to get items of value out of the basement. I, of course, was most worried about my toys; my parents had other concerns. My father eventually bought a second sump pump to deal with floods. The main sump pump was electric and diverted water into the creek. The second sump pump was gasoline powered; when my father ran that pump, he had to run the hose out the basement window. Of course when floodwaters reached the window, trying to pump water out of the basement was pointless.

My parents were legally required to purchase flood insurance. After a major flood, the insurance company would give them money to replace the furnace, washer, drier, and freezer. They did not cover craft materials or toys. Along with replacement money, though, the insurance also provided funds for cleaning the basement, based on the square footage of the floor and walls that had come in contact with floodwater. As my parents became older and major floods became more frequent, the basement was increasingly unsafe. I know that pockets of mold and mildew existed where they could not be reached to be removed. My father was anxious to move, but my mother was very attached to the house and the village.

After my mother died (a little more than a year ago), my father relocated as quickly as he could. A government agency was purchasing houses in the floodplain. Months of legal negotiations were involved in the transaction, but eventually my father was able to move, and the house was leveled.

I clearly remember many afternoons spent in the basement. I remember using a hand drill to drill holes in a block of wood, which kept me busy while my father worked on more complicated projects. I remember the gatherings of 4-H children and church ladies to work on ceramics, and I remember a few projects I produced at the same table. (One of them won prizes at the county fair and was exhibited at the state fair.) I remember playing with toys on the floor of the recreation room, and I remember frantically gathering toys to take upstairs because it was raining outside. I remember lessons from my father on developing film and printing pictures, many years before telephones were used to take pictures. I remember a sense of security while my mother loaded the kiln and my father sculpted cabinet doors for the kitchen and I played with my toys. All that remains today are the memories. J.