Happy Leap Day

Soren Kierkegaard compared the faith of a Christian to a leap. In this, he was not saying that faith begins with a leap—that we enter Christianity by making a leap of faith. Rather, he was saying that all of faith is a leap. He spoke not only about leaping across a chasm to the other side, but also of the leaps performed by ballet dancers. For most of us, such a leap would be a clumsy jump; but for the trained dancer, the leap is graceful and appears effortless.

Kierkegaard’s point is that no one is persuaded to become a Christian through reason and logic. Logical arguments exist to prove the existence of God, but no one has ever been won to faith by a logical argument. These arguments reinforce the faith of believers, but unbelievers generally find ways to resist the power of the logical proofs. Some proofs should be resisted, such as Anselm’s ontological proof. (We first define God as the best of all possible beings: the wisest, the most powerful, the most beautiful, etc. We then state that it is better to exist than not to exist. That would certainly be true of a piece of chocolate cake. Since we already said that God is the best of all possible beings: hey, presto: we have proved the existence of God.) Other logical proofs, such as those regarding a First Cause and a First Mover, are more convincing. (I was just reading such a proof by John Locke last night. The first thought was produced by the first thinker. If the first thinker arose in time, then there was a time when no thought existed. Atheists are willing to accept that condition, but most people struggle to explain how the first thought could come into being within time.)

Kierkegaard was by no means the first to suggest that reason and logic can lead to faith. Martin Luther described reason and logic as the mother or grandmother of the devil. Human thinkers who rely upon reason and logic can never work their way to the truths of God. (Luther would have hated the approach of Rene Descartes.) Rather, we begin with God and his revelation, and we use reason and logic to interpret and understand and apply those truths that God has revealed. Whenever we trust our reason and logic over God’s Word, we put ourselves in the place of God. As a result, we reject the paradoxes which are not below reason and logic but are so far about them that they cannot comprehend the paradoxes of God’s truth.

There is a place, then, for reason and logic in the practice of apologetics. But they cannot be the foundation of apologetics. The foundation must remain the Bible. God’s Word creates faith and strengthens faith and sustains faith. Reason and logic have their place, but only when they serve God’s Word and do not seek to become its masters.

Modern Christianity, at least in North America, tends to diminish reason and logic, but not for the relationship involving God’s grace and his gift of faith. Rather, modern evangelism often resorts to emotional appeals to draw people into faith. Events are manufactured to inspire the flow of emotions that makes people responsive to an invitation. Then, at the peak moment of emotional fervor, the invitation is delivered. This sort of manipulation of the human mind and will is justified by its practitioners according to two false teachings: that faith is a conscious decision of the human mind or will; and that once a person acquires true faith, that faith can never be lost.

Both false teachings are easily corrected by God’s Word. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7) “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13). “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).

Every day each Christian leaps into the arms of a loving and merciful Father. Every day each Christian leaps by means of the cross of Christ into the kingdom of God. Every day the Holy Spirit carries each Christian from sin through repentance to redemption, from rebellion through grace to reconciliation with God. As we observe a leap day—not a once-in-a-lifetime day, but a regularly scheduled correction to the calendar—so we rejoice in the leap of faith that brings us to a right relationship with the God who loves us and who rescues us from all sin and evil. J.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

I stopped by Walmart on my way home from teaching last night. I had to chuckle as I walked past the Valentine cards; three white-haired men were inspecting the cards, all standing in front of the “Wife” selections. There’s nothing like last-minute shopping for romantic gestures.

Every Leap Year I read the works of Soren Kierkegaard as part of my daily devotions. I just happen to be halfway through Stages on Life’s Way, which is very appropriate for St. Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, he was a theologian in the Danish church (therefore Lutheran), although he never served a congregation. Instead, he published (at his own expense) essays on philosophy, theology, and life in general. Many of his books were written under pseudonyms, which gave Kierkegaard the freedom to pursue lines of thought that were not his own. That’s why it’s risky to quote Kierkegaard—you can never be sure that he meant what he wrote, that he wasn’t setting up a straw man through his pseudonym.

Stages on Life’s Way presents itself as a series of works found in a bookbinder’s shop and published by the bookbinder because he had no idea what had happened to the author. The first work is based on Plato’s Symposium: five men gather for a banquet, and each delivers a speech about love. The second work is a scholarly discussion of love and marriage, attributed to a certain Judge William. The third, “Guilty? Not Guilty?” is a diary supposedly fished out of a Danish lake. The diarist writes in the morning, recalling a love affair/engagement of a year before; then he writes at midnight about his sense of guilt for having broken the engagement. Since Kierkegaard had done exactly that—been engaged and broke the engagement—one might suspect that the diary is somewhat autobiographical. In actuality, the work is an exploration of romance, anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Great reading for Valentine’s Day!

Kierkegaard is sometimes blamed for the Existentialist movement in modern philosophy. He actually was a defender of traditional Biblical Christianity. Kierkegaard insisted that faith must be subjective, but he didn’t mean that in a post-modern sense of “believe whatever you choose to believe.” Instead, he meant that theological statements must be deeply personal to have any value. A list of proofs for the existence of God is helpful to hardly anyone: the believer already believes without the proofs, and the unbeliever already rejects all the proofs that are presented.

Which brings me back to the white-haired men searching for a preprinted card that will express their love for their wife—and doing so long after the most suitable cards have already been purchased. Wouldn’t a handwritten message be more suitable than a Walmart greeting card? Or have these men run out of ways to say, “I love you”? Flowers and chocolate are nice, but nothing is more endearing than a piece of paper that has been handled and rejected by countless husbands over the past three weeks before it finally leaves the store in the hands of a desperate man a few short hours before midnight on February 13. Or so it struck me last night. J.

Pascal and Descartes

In the past few days I have read the works of two important philosophers: Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes. Both lived in France during the 1600s; in fact, they knew each other. Both excelled in science and mathematics as well as philosophy. But Pascal is probably the last writer of the Reformation, while Descartes is definitely the first of the modern philosophers.

Blaise Pascal was part of a movement in France which was called Jansenism. Remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, Jansenists drew their teachings from the Bible and from the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Their enemies (which included the Jesuits) accused them of being Calvinists rather than faithful Catholics. Pascal never completed his most important book, the Pensees (Thoughts or Meditations). It remained in outline form, with many sections fleshed out; because it was written on scraps of paper, even the order of the material is questionable. But it is clear that Pascal was seeking to convince a skeptical reader of the existence and importance of God. In one section, often called “Pascal’s wager,” the philosopher suggests that it is better to believe in God and be wrong—in which case there are no dire consequences—than to refuse to believe in God and be wrong—in which case the consequences are enormous and catastrophic. I suspect the wager, as such, is intended as a joke, since Pascal knew that Christian faith is far more serious than a gamble. Throughout his work, Pascal demonstrates a deep, sincere faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom he distinguishes from the God of the philosophers.

Rene Descartes also wrote Meditations, although his works were finished and published in the form he intended. Descartes begins by suggesting that everything he had learned might be wrong. What he had been taught and what he had perceived with his senses might both be faulty. He resolved to doubt everything; then he would see what truth he could deduce in the midst of his doubt. He pointed out that he must exist, since he was thinking. (“Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am”). But something other than Pascal must exist, since he received input or stimulus from outside of his mind. Both he and those other existing things must have a cause, and Descartes reasoned that the First Cause is God. He then pondered the nature of a God who creates, determining that such a God must be benevolent rather than devious or malicious. From that Descartes concluded that he could trust his senses as well as his reasoning and could use science to study the world around him.

(It should be noted that the movie Matrix pictures the alternate possibility—that people think, but that no benevolent God is responsible for creating the world in which they exist. Therefore, it is possible, even likely, that the world in which they truly exist is entirely unlike the world they perceive.)

Pascal, like most Christians before him, began with God and with revealed knowledge, using philosophy and reason to build a system of thought that included science but left all things in God’s hands. Descartes, like most modern philosophers since his time, began with himself and worked his way to knowledge of God and of the world.

I found no mention of Pascal in Descartes’ book, but Pascal mentions Descartes. He was unimpressed by Descartes’ approach, concerned that the God Descartes would find by starting with himself would not be the true God. This has remained a problem for modern philosophy ever since. In the 1600s, Descartes said, “Question everything.” In the 1800s, Soren Kierkegaard responded, “Why?” J.

When God closes a door…

…somewhere he opens a window. Postulant Maria, in The Sound of Music, claimed to have learned that adage from the Reverend Mother. I suspect that the line is a quip created by the scriptwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The original proverb promises that when God closes one door, he opens another. Although that saying is not taken from the Bible, it is inferred by a reading of Acts 16:6-10 and II Corinthians 2:12-13.

About a year ago, a certain job became open, and the person who told me about the opening also said that he would recommend me for the position. He assured me that I am perfect for the job. The process is lengthy; a self-study had to be completed before the committee in charge of finding a new worker could gather nominations and try to find the best match. Around the end of December they published seven names that had been recommended to them and promised to gather biographical data and other suggestions from the parent organization.

Meanwhile I had all this time to learn more about the job and its location: to see what houses are for sale in the area, to check out stores and restaurants, to read about the community and its history, and get a sense of what people do there for fun. The Internet makes such research ridiculously easy.

At the end of March the committee had received requested information from the parent organization and promised to winnow the list to the most promising candidates, contact them, and arrange for interviews. Every time the phone rang in April and May my heart jumped, thinking, “This might be them.” Finally this week the committee published the three finalists they have selected for the position. My name was not on the list.

During these last two months, I was also recruited for a similar position closer to home. The biggest problem with this position is that they are not able to offer both a full-time salary and health insurance. They are seeking someone who is willing to work two jobs, and since I am currently working three jobs, they thought I might be willing to make the change. After I learned that my name was not on the first list, I agreed at least to talk with the men who strongly want me to take this part-time position.

Here is where it gets complicated. The parent organization for the one position I had hoped to be offered and the parent organization for the one position I have been offered are in parallel branches of the same larger entity. During a half-hour conversation about the part-time position, I was able to ask if my information had been requested from the head of the other branch. The answer was no. So, apparently, the branch head declined to obtain up-to-date information about me for the committee that was seeking to fill a position. It may have been a clerical error or something more sinister; the head of my branch knows nothing about me that would disqualify me for such a job, which is why he is trying so hard to persuade me to take the part-time position.

This part-time position is located an hour’s drive from where I live. I told them that the commute would be a problem. They hoped that I would keep the full-time job I have (with its health insurance and other benefits) and drive that hour once or twice a week to fulfill my part-time duties. I replied that I thought, in order to do my job well, I would need to live in the community. (I am performing a similar job while driving half an hour each way once or twice a week, and I think that is too great a distance.) Eventually, I placed before them something like Gideon’s fleece. If a full-time job can be found for me in or near the community, I am willing to move there and take both jobs, but the full-time job would have to be something comparable to the one I have now. I had already checked. There are no such openings in the area. But they are using what connections they have to check again.

As I see it, if the Lord wants me to take this part-time job, he will provide the full-time job nearby. Otherwise, he has a different plan for me and for that position. That different plan may involve me staying where I am for many more years. It may involve another opening at yet another place. It might even happen that the three finalists chosen at the first place I mentioned will all prove unsatisfactory or will all be unwilling to take the position. Wishing for such a thing to happen is having faith by virtue of the absurd (as Soren Kierkegaard would say). Yet, more than twenty years ago, I was offered a job after a similar committee had selected two finalists and then found itself to be dissatisfied with both.

Meanwhile, I accept with resignation (Kierkegaard again) that the door is closed. I continue to trust the Lord’s planning. And when I find the window he has opened, I will jump through and run as fast as I can. J.

 

Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

Christ in Genesis: the Sacrifice

Genesis 22 has inspired awe and horror in God’s people for many generations. Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, about this chapter. He makes the interesting point that any man today who dared to imitate Abraham and prepare to offer his son as a burnt offering would be stopped, arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. Any statement that God had told him to do such a thing would be disregarded as an attempt to obtain a verdict of innocent on the grounds of insanity.

Kierkegaard overlooked the fact that Genesis 22 contains a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. However, Kierkegaard correctly indicated that this account teaches more than the truth that we should give our best to God. Many teachers see only that lesson—Isaac was the best thing Abraham could offer to God, and God demanded that from him. A vast distance separates our requirement to give our best to God and God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

How was Abraham capable of daring to obey such a command? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham’s faith in the promise of the resurrection made him able to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. If Abraham knew about the resurrection, he must also have known about the promised Savior. Perhaps Abraham even believed that his miracle son, Isaac, was the promised Savior, the blessing from his family for the entire world. Instead of recognizing Isaac as a picture of Jesus, Abraham may have thought that he was in the presence of his Redeemer in the person of his son.

So a father is prepared to accept—and even to cause—the death of his son for the good of the world. The son trusts his father and does not resist his father’s will. He even carries the wood to the place of sacrifice, as Jesus carried his own cross. Abraham is stopped just in time, because Isaac is not the Christ. He is only a picture of the Christ. A second picture of Jesus appears, a ram taking the place of Isaac as Jesus himself would take the place of Isaac in the future.

As they climbed the hill for the sacrifice, Isaac asked Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham must have gulped and sighed before he said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When he said those words, Abraham expected Isaac to be the lamb, for God had provided Isaac by a miracle to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s words were made true when he provided a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. They were made more true when God provided his only-begotten Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Not only is Jesus depicted first by Isaac and then by the ram; he is also present at this near-sacrifice. He is the angel of the Lord who speaks to Abraham, repeating the promise that Abraham’s family would be a mighty nation and would provide a blessing for the entire world. Jesus himself fulfilled that promise when he suffered and died on the cross and when he rose to life again on the third day. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our eternal life. This promise of a resurrection strengthened Abraham to obey the command of God, and (as the letter to the Hebrews says) “figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”—on the third day from the command to sacrifice his son!

Where did this take place? “The land of Moriah… on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” God said (Genesis 22:2). This mountain of Moriah is mentioned again in II Chronicles 3:1, where we are told that Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Moriah is one of the seven hills of Jerusalem, and the animal sacrifices (which, like Isaac, were pictures of Jesus) were offered to God in the Temple on Mount Moriah from the time of Solomon until the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the second Temple until the time of Jesus. Calvary may possibly be the very outcropping of Mount Moriah on which Isaac was nearly sacrificed. If not, we can be sure that the place where Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and the place where God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son were very near each other. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

Two paths

Two paths stand before each of us, and each of us much choose which path to walk. One is the path of pleasure, and the other is the path of virtue. The path of pleasure appears pleasant, even beautiful, and it is easy to travel, but it leads to destruction. The path of virtue appears unpleasant, and it is much harder to travel, but it leads to true joy and not to destruction.

I have just read an interesting discussion of these two paths, and no, the writer does not mention Robert Frost. The poem in which Frost chooses the path less traveled, “and that has made all the difference,” is beloved by graduation speakers. Yet Frost never says that he is glad he took the path less traveled. When the poem is read with a sense of regret, it makes equal sense. Frost was born too late, though, to be quoted by Soren Kierkegaard. In his monumental Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard mentions sermons he has heard about the paths of pleasure and virtue. Specifically, Kierkegaard mentions preachers who recommend the path of virtue and discuss its charms. “Little by little,” Kierkegaard says, they alter their description of virtue and its rewards, until finally it seems like lunacy to choose the path of pleasure, not only because it leads to destruction, but because the path of virtue is equally nice in every way. Kierkegaard scornfully refers to these preachers as a committee formed to beautify the path of virtue, planting flowers along the way.

I do not quote Kierkegaard merely to correct the “prosperity gospel” preachers, those who say that God wants his people to be wealthy, healthy, peaceful, and happy in this present sinful world. Correcting their mistakes with properly applied Scripture is as easy as fishing in the hatchery pond. Instead, I am noticing how often we all try to beautify the path of virtue. We convince ourselves that we feel better after doing something kind and helpful for another person; we tell ourselves that we would feel guilty after sinning and our sense of guilt would take away all the fun. We assure ourselves that the sacrifices we make for God are improving our lives, guaranteeing us contentment in the midst of sacrifice. (What kind of sacrifice is it, then, if it makes us happy?) We promise ourselves that God is going to smooth the way before us once he knows that we have chosen to honor him by walking the path of virtue rather than the path to pleasure.

Kierkegaard rightly says that the Bible promises no such things. Easy and wide is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road to eternal life. The gate also is narrow, and few find it. In another place, Jesus says that the road to virtue is so difficult that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. The path of virtue requires nothing less than self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total faithfulness to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard stops at this point. He does not go on to say that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. As Paul wrote to the Romans, not one of us has faithfully traveled the path of virtue—we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not only do we try to beautify the path of virtue; we convince ourselves that the path of virtue must be beautiful because the path we are traveling has all the surface splendor of the path of pleasure. Rather than confessing that we are on the wrong path, we honor ourselves by calling our way the path of virtue and by accusing others of being on the path of pleasure.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah says, but the Lord has laid on our Redeemer the burden of us all. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, but all are saved by his grace. We have not denied ourselves, but Jesus denied himself for us. We have forgotten to carry our crosses, but Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem to Golgotha. Like Christ’s disciples we have not followed our Shepherd when trouble arose. We have run in other directions; we have hidden from trouble; when challenged, we have denied our Lord. Yet he went alone to the cross so we could be redeemed. Alone, he paid the price for all our wandering and all our guilt. Alone, he walked the path of virtue so he could come back and take us to be with him. Our Shepherd has blazed a trail through the consequences of our guilt. Now his rod and staff comfort us, goodness and mercy accompany us every step of the way, and we will dwell in his house forever. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.