Thoughts on Dr. Seuss’s “cancelled” books

People thinking about this week’s Dr. Seuss controversy will benefit from reading this article. It addresses all sides of the issue, separates facts from misunderstandings and misinformation, and provides a greater context within the cultural mayhem of our time. J.

https://librarianmagdalena.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/thoughts-on-dr-seusss-cancelled-books/

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.

Eponine and Irony

This summer I read, cover to cover, Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. I also watched the movie musical made from Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. Both these great works from the nineteenth century contributed to my understanding of the underlying forces that are propelling our world and its communities in the mystical year 2020.

Tolstoy repeatedly and emphatically insisted that heroes and geniuses do not exist. We create them out of historic figures (or mythical figures) trying to understand history. Real history, according to Tolstoy, consists of movements among masses of people. Napoleon in his wars two hundred years ago was merely a chip bouncing on the waves of history. He had no more to do with the real history of his times than any other man or woman alive at the same time. Revolutionaries and street protestors, like those portrayed in Les Miserables, are equally impotent to shape the times in which they live. Hugo deliberately chose one of the most pointless and ineffective uprisings in French history—the June Rebellion of 1832—for his novel. Both Tolstoy and Hugo created fictional characters with meaningful lives and troubles to inhabit their novels. Both writers incorporated historical events as virtually meaningless background sights and sounds for their stories.

[With this innocuous beginning, I hope to have lost, by now, the more casual readers, along with those computer-generated searches that are designed to keep real thought and real truth from existing on the Internet. Indeed, some of those preceding sentences may well be copied and pasted into college papers handed in to professors for years to come. But my real Reader, if there is such a person, is advised to print a hard copy of this pair of posts. What I write and post today may well be edited or entirely removed in the coming days, and I might not be available to clarify or restore what I have written.]

Tolstoy and Hugo provide examples of a philosophy or world-view that has risen to dominate much of twenty-first century life. Behind this movement is a They or Them who really exist, although they are not formally organized as a single organization. One could call them the Illuminati, so long as one understands that they have no constitution or bylaws, no board of directors or officers, no membership list, no budget, no dues, no regular meetings, and no periodic newsletters. If they ever use a label like “Illuminati” among themselves, it is done with an ironic wink and grin. This Illuminati, like Tolstoy and Hugo, denies the value of individual accomplishment, of heroes and geniuses, of persons who mold and shape human history. When individual names (such as da Vinci, Rothschild, or Rockefeller) are attached to the Illuminati, the real Illuminati only chuckle in response. They lurk in the shadows, wanting no public recognition for their deeds. Yet, since this group includes the rich and the powerful, their influence extends into the lives of most people living in the world today.

They cross paths on the boards of large corporations. They see each other at gatherings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group. Their thinking is echoed by government officials around the world. Yet the Illuminati does not own or control any of these groups. They have uses for corporations, for governments, and especially for gatherings of people who discuss major issues and listen to one another to learn more about these issues. But the true Illuminati could not be extinguished by gathering and controlling people involved in the world at these levels.

The members of the Illuminati are rich and powerful. They all want to remain rich and powerful. In many ways, they compete with one another for wealth and power. They are not equipped to cooperate among themselves to run the world politically, economically, or in any other fashion. But they also do not believe that politics and economics run the world. They usually do not care who lives in the White House. Elections are, for the Illuminati, mere drama to entertain and distract the masses. In fact, most newsworthy events and most historic happenings are distraction and entertainment, neither caused nor controlled by the Illuminati, but used to achieve their deepest goals.

The Illuminati cannot control the weather. When storms happen, though, they find ways to use the aftermath for their own purposes. The Illuminati have no control over Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s creation). They cannot start, spread, or eliminate diseases. When diseases happen, though, the Illuminati exercise their ability to focus attention on these diseases and their consequences or to distract people from these diseases and their consequences.

Their primary weapon is fear. Their primary tools are education and communication. What passes for news reporting in the current world is, in fact, an arm of the entertainment industry and not a service of communication for the world’s population. While they do not declare wars, fight wars, or bring an end to wars, the members of the Illuminati use past and present wars to shape public perception. Fear is their primary weapon: they are behind much of the fear that people have felt over the Cold War, nuclear weapons, environmental concerns, terrorism, climate change, street demonstrations, and COVID-19.

Because they deal in fear, the Illuminati do not want to solve problems of racial injustice, discrimination, or other factors that separate one group from another. Instead, they use their power over education and communication to highlight differences, stoke anger, and continue injustice. Government programs and privately-funded efforts that genuinely reduce injustice and promote cooperation are undermined; similar programs that continue injustice, damage cooperation, and generate further anger and fear are encouraged.

Like Tolstoy and Hugo, members of the current Illuminati are interested in broad movements among large groups of people. History and progress, to the Illuminati, are found in these movements. At the forefront of the powers that inhibit these movements are the traditional family and the traditional Christian congregation. The Illuminati encourages every opportunity that arises to undermine these two opponents. Removing children from their families to educate them in public schools was an Illuminati goal. Dominating the conversation in colleges and universities to turn students against their families and other traditional supporters of family was an Illuminati goal. Redefining the family to promote alternate lifestyles, even a rejection of biological gender, has been an Illuminati goal. Separating the joy of sex from the stability of marriage and family has long been an Illuminati goal.

Because it uses the entertainment industry to attack traditional families and traditional Christianity, the Illuminati has long endorsed anti-family behavior within that industry. As a result, children and young adults have succumbed to predators hidden within the industry for years. Public embarrassment of child stars emerging into adulthood has been the norm, not the exception. Charges against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein are only the tip of the iceberg—surrender of a couple of egregious examples for the purpose of maintaining the nefarious structure to which those men belong. The victims of this structure are not people singled out for programing by a massive conspiracy; their tragedies are the inevitable result of a view of life that places personal pleasure and profit ahead of appropriate human relationships—and that plans to train the rest of the world to do the same.

To be continued… J

Seven classic novels for children

I’ve been buried in words the last several weeks, as I have engaged in a host of literary tasks. First, I am copy-editing and tweaking my book on Revelation, with the hope of sending it to the publisher in a week or two. Second, I’ve been quickly reading a book about the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday) to which I’ve been asked to write a response. Third, I’m still enjoying First on the Moon as I celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo XI mission. Add to that my regular reading from the Bible and devotional material (I will finish Jerome on Monday—yea!), and have started reading Steinbeck’s novels, and am catching up on a stack of books I’ve acquired over the years without bothering to read them until now. On top of that, I chose this summer to revisit some old friends from my childhood.

In the family library downstairs I have my reading chair. Just behind the chair, on one of the corner shelves, are two rows of children’s books—some were bought for my children, but most have belonged to me when I was young. Working my way through Jerome and Steinbeck, I’d see these books out of the corner of my eye. Seven particular books are old friends, books that I would read and enjoy every summer when I was a boy. Finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation—I grabbed one of the seven and added it to my daily reading schedule.

In no particular order, here are my seven old friends.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Mathematician Charles Dodgson created amusing tales for his friend and neighbor, Alice Liddell, and her sisters. Using the name Lewis Carroll, he published these stories to share with the world. Starring Alice, the two stories follow a little girl on two amazing journeys, one down a rabbit tunnel where she meets a variety of interesting characters, many of whom are members of a deck of cards. The second takes here through a mirror where she joins a chess game as a pawn, eventually crossing the board and becoming a queen, also meeting a variety of interesting characters along the way. In both stories, Dodgson (or Carroll) intersperses plot with poetry, sometimes with nonsense poems and sometimes with satires upon classic children’s poetry. He also blends in simple logic puzzles and other signs of his brilliant mathematical mind.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Journalist Samuel Clemens also took on a pen name, calling himself Mark Twain as he wrote amusing stories to appear in journals and in books. His childhood memories that he blended into the character of Tom Sawyer and his friends are among his most remembered and beloved stories. Tom is a lively rascal, flitting from one adventure to another, but getting involved unintentionally in some of the greater drama of his community. Much of Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, is dedicated to his memory; I recommend a visit there during summer travels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: More than a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn tells the story of a lost boy, son of the town drunk, who eventually takes a raft down the Mississippi River in the company of an escaping slave. Without straying from plot and adventure, the book also wrestles with the problems of race, slavery, and human nature in general. One episode, set in an unnamed Arkansas riverside city (probably Napoleon) has the two travelers who have joined Huck and Jim swindle an entire city of naïve citizens. Tom Sawyer makes an appearance toward the end of the book, but he’s not the same carefree boy of his own novel. Instead, he builds an intricate web of intrigue to rescue Jim from confinement, even though Tom knows all along that Jim has already been freed by his owner.

Heidi: Johanna Spyri describes a young Swiss orphan who is left to her grandfather, a recluse living high on a mountain. The title character brings life and joy to all the neighborhood, but suddenly she is snatched away to be the companion of a crippled girl (probably a polio victim, although the book does not say) in Frankfurt. Heidi is miserable in the city, but she continues to bring life and joy to others. Along the way she is introduced to Christian piety by Klara’s grandmother, who teaches Heidi to pray and to trust the Good Lord. Heidi does as she is told, is whisked back to her grandfather on the mountaintop, once again brings life and joy to her neighbors, and does the same for her newer friends when they visit from Frankfurt. If you have only seen the Shirley Temple movie based on this book, you must read the book for yourself.

The Wizard of Oz: Frank Baum created a story which may or may not be an allegory of American politics. Dorothy Gale lives on a farm with her uncle and aunt and her little dog Toto, until one day a tornado lifts her and Toto to the land of Oz. There, she must travel to the capital city to see if the wizard can return her to Kansas. Along the way she is joined by a scarecrow seeking brains, a tin man needing a heart, and a lion wanting courage. To earn what they seek, they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie version, starring Judy Garland, omits many of the interesting events in the book; and the movie destroys the story with its resolution of “it was all a dream.”

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew: This story was written by Margaret Sidney. Three boys and two girls are being raised by their mother in poverty, but for the most part they are happy in spite of their lack of material comforts. About with the measles tests the family’s endurance, but afterward they cross paths with a rich family that dotes on the Peppers and mentors them. Unspoiled by their taste of wealth, the Peppers (like Heidi) continue to bring blessings into the lives of those near them. Even though I read the book every summer, my favorite chapters relate the family’s effort to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty.

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson begins his adventure with the son of an innkeeper. One of the inn’s residents is a retired pirate, now in hiding. When the pirate dies, his treasure map falls into the hands of the innkeeper’s son, just ahead of the effort of the other pirates to recover the map. Two wealthy gentlemen join with the son to sail to the island and find the buried treasure. Unfortunately, much of the crew that they hire as sailors consists of former pirates seeking the same treasure. Jim—the innkeepers’ son and now a cabin-boy, happens always to be in the right place at the right time to learn the plans of the pirates, led by the one-legged Long John Silver, and to foil those plans.

This is just some of the classic literature I am enjoying this summer. J.

Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through amazon.com. J.

A novel

Seven years ago, I wrote a novel. It sounds so easy said that way. In fact, the plot and characters had been growing in my head for several years when I finally started writing. And it took a few returns over the past seven years to tweak the words and sentences so they seemed right to me.

This is the description on the back of the book:

“On Christmas Eve, Mark Pendleton’s wife and daughters were killed in a traffic accident. Now he was left with only his job, his house, and his books.

On Easter, Amy O’Reilly’s boyfriend emptied his apartment of her possessions and locked her out. Now she was left with only her fast food job, her clothes, and her dance classes.

Soon they would each have more. They would have each other.

Their story is told in their own words. But it is more than a he said-she said confrontation. For he was born at the beginning of the Baby Boom, and she was born at the end of the Baby Boom. Now, in the mid-1980s, they are a generation apart from one another. Living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas, they have far less in common than anyone might have guessed. They must learn to share their lives in the face of their many differences.

More than a love story, I Remember Amy is an account of two individuals, both growing, both learning, and both coming to terms with relationships, with forgiveness, and with acceptance.”

Four dollars for the electronic version on Kindle, or thirteen dollars for a traditional book from amazon.com

When I first imagined the story, Mark was to have been injured in the wreck that killed the rest of his family, unable to stand or walk for the rest of his life. Amy was a gymnast before she became a dancer. She would have been on the brink of greatness, expecting Olympic medals and fame and fortune, but untimely injuries kept her from competing at key events. So she returned to her small town, unsung and uncelebrated, with no future ahead of her. Her only employment was cleaning houses. She would have ended up being a caretaker for Mark, and the story would have developed from there.

By the time I was writing, Mark was no longer confined to a wheelchair, and Amy was a college student, fast food worker, and dancer. One key plot twist—which I am not revealing on WordPress—gave me the incentive finally to create the entire story.

It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1985. Mark has a job in the state government. While I was writing, I did a lot of factchecking to be authentic about the weather, about events happening in town, and even about which restaurants and motels existed then.

For the last two or three weeks, I have been carefully reading through the work one final time. Last night I finished the reading and sent the work to Kindle for publication. It’s already available; I’m excited to see how it will do. J.iremember

Why I write

If I wrote to make money, I would be badly disappointed. The tax documents that I am preparing to file remind me that what I earned through writing last year was a tiny sum, nowhere near enough to support the year’s mortgage or groceries.

If I wrote to become famous, I would be badly disappointed. Some of my writing has been read by others and even quoted by others, but I have probably been noticed more for my public speaking than for anything I have written.

If I wrote to change the world, I would be badly disappointed. A few people have told me that they were helped by something I have written, but for the most part the world has gone its own way without paying any attention to the things I have written.

Why, then, do I write? Largely I write because I must write. I have thoughts that must be expressed. People sometimes ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas swirl around in my mind like flies in a stable. When I am showering, or when I am mowing, or when I am driving, my mind is composing sentences and paragraphs on various topics. For me, writer’s block is not a question of nothing to say; writer’s block for me is too many things to say, crowded together like too many people trying to get through a doorway at the same time.

I earned good grades in school. I scored highly on standardized tests. I could easily have been a scientist, a mathematician, a businessman, or an engineer. I would probably have earned far more money in any of those careers. But my primary fascination has always been language. I read about science, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret refusing to pursue a career in that field. I read about economics, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret failing to work in the world of business.

A few years ago, I was invited into a classroom to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders about writing. I encouraged the students to do three things. Read a lot: being exposed every day to samples of good writing will always improve one’s writing. Write a lot: even when one writes something that goes unread, the exercise sharpens skills. Rewrite a lot: no one but God gets it right the first time. Good writing can always be improved. At the end of the session, one of the students heading out the door asked, “Are you famous?” I smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I wouldn’t mind earning more money for my writing. I wouldn’t mind becoming famous for my writing. I wouldn’t mind making the world a better place by my writing. If none of those things happen, I still must write. It’s who I am; it’s what I do. If I did not write, I would not be who I am. J.

Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.