Top 50 Biblical Studies Blogs

You will find a number of familiar blogs listed on N.T. Wrong’s First Ever Biblioblog Top 50 – October 2008.

I’m surprised and honoured that my own blog appears in this list at number 24. Fun!

I recommend the blogs listed there, most of which are on my daily rounds already, but some are new to me. All of them are very interesting and informational, with each presented by real personalities. Delight in the variety.

Infernal advice

My dear Wormwood,
…About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything–even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game,
            Your affectionate uncle,
            Screwtape

The quotation “Only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations” is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Harper & Bros, 1934). The work is, of course, noxious, but undoubtedly still popular in some circles. Unfortunately there’s much more; it reads like a charicature, really. But I do wonder if Niebuhr ever learned of this quotation having been placed by Lewis, entirely appropriately, in the mouth of a demon. Such a fitting antitribute! Lewis managed to peg Niebuhr, in this case, as one batting for t’other team.

Know your enemy!

The Rose

Press me not to take more pleasure
      In this world of sugred lies,
And to use a larger measure
      Than my strict, yet welcome size.

First, there is no pleasure here:
      Colour’d griefs indeed there are,
Blushing woes, that look as clear
      As if they could beauty spare.

Or if such deceits there be,
      Such delights I meant to say,
There are no such things to me,
      Who have pass’d my right away.

But I will not much oppose
      Unto what you now advise:
Only take this gentle rose,
      And therein my answer lies.

What is fairer than a rose?
      What is sweeter? yet it purgeth.
Purgings enmity disclose,
      Enmity forebearance urgeth.

If then all that worldlings prize
      Be contracted to a rose;
Sweetly there indeed it lies,
      But it biteth in the close.

So this flower doth judge and sentence
      Worldly joys to a scourge:
For they all produce repentance,
      And repentance is a purge.

But I health, not physic choose:
      Only, though I you oppose,
Say that fairly I refuse,
      For my answer is a rose.

George Herbert, 1633

Some notes on the text:
sugred lies: sugared lies, lies made sweet
Colour’d griefs: griefs painted, as with makeup, to be more attractive
As if they could beauty spare: As if they had beauty enough to spare some
pass’d my right away: handed off my right
yet it purgeth: Roses were used as a purgative.
Purgings…urgeth: purgatives bring forth the harmful food, which one will avoid in future
physic: a purgative medicine
Only…Say that fairly: fairly in a double sense: 1) justly 2) prettily

The Man of Steel

His piety was redoubled by a very strong concern with orthodoxy. For example, in one of his homilies on Saint Luke he says: “As for myself, my wish is to be truly a man of the Church, to be called by the name of Christ and not that of any heresiarch, to have this name which is blessed over all the earth; I desire to be, and to be called, a Christian, in my works as in my thoughts.” Love and faith are fused in this outcry; it is the force of love which exacts rightness of faith. He often alerts us to the danger of false doctrines from which, he observes, “human nature finds it difficult to purify itself.” Such doctrines are for him in the true sense, so to speak, “the abomination of desolation.” He insists that one must protect oneself against them by vigilance and by prayer. Not content to invoke “the rule of the Scriptures” or “the evangelical and apostolic rule,” he constantly appeals to “the rule of the Church,” “the faith of the Church,” “the word of the Church,” “the preaching of the Church,” “the tradition of the Church,” “the doctrine of the Church,” “the thoughts and teaching of the Church.” In the bones of the paschal Lamb he sees a symbol of the “holy dogmas of the Church” of which not one shall be broken. He does not want “that there be any disagreement on doctrine among Churches.” He is Adamantius, “the man of iron”; “doctrinal firmness” is one of the virtues closest to his heart. He exalts the constancy in the faith and stability of dogma. Even before Saint Augustine, he speaks of “chastity of the heart,” that is, of the understanding, and doctrines that stray from the rule of faith seem to him worse than evil ways of life. Again, he says that “one must guard oneself against committing an offense of the head” and against eatin the sacred foods outside the temple, that is, “against harboring thoughts different from the faith of the Church on divine dogmas.” One must receive the faith of God in the spirit which the Church teaches us, and must not do like the heretics who search the Scriptures only in order to find some confirmation of their own doctrines. Their pride raises them “higher than the cedars of Lebanon” and their sophistries are full of deceit. But it is no use for them to pretend that they have a tradition which comes down from the apostles; they are professors of error. While the faithful Christian in no way strays from the great tradition, they appeal to secret Scriptures or to secret traditions in order to confirm their lies. Thus they want to make us worship a Christ whom they have invented “in solitude,” while the only authentic Christ reveals himself “within the house.” They disfigure those vessels of gold and silver which are the sacred texts, in order to fashion them into objects according to their own fancy. They are thieves and adulterers who seize the divine words only to deform them by their perverse interpretations. They are counterfeiters for they have coined their doctrine outside the Church. Falso teacher, false prophets, spinning out of their own minds what they propound, they are the liars of whom Ezekiel speaks. By a perverse trickery they often cover their idols, that is, their empty dogmas, with sweetness and chastity so that their propositions may be smuggled more easily into the ears of their listeners and lead them astray more surely. They all call Jesus their master and embrace him; but their kiss is the kiss of Judas.

Who is this remarkable personality who bore the nickname Adamantius? Why, it is Origen, of course! The above is found on pages xiii-xiv of the 1973 reprinting by Peter Smith of Gloucester, Massachusetts of the G. W. Butterworth translation of Origen’s On First Principles. It is excerpted from the 1966 edition’s Introduction, which is actually a translation (by William Babcock) of selections from chapters one and two of Henri de Lubac’s Histoire et Esprit, l’intelligence de l’Écriture d’après Origène (Paris, 1950).

I have always found a somewhat salacious delight in the irony of hearing those of a more pseudo-intellectual and falsely liberal bent complaining about the Church’s condemnation of Origen, holding up instead an image of Origen as a neo-gnostic like themselves, for whom dogma is “of the little people,” all the while ignoring his utter devotion to the Church! Little do they know him, this Adamantius! He would have been the first to disabuse them of their heresies both petty and gross, flaying, dismembring, and incinerating such foolish ideas, finally discarding the remnants on the ash-heap of theological history.

But we do find problems in Origen’s writings, despite his true Christian faith and his devotion to the Church. And with his recognition, entirely deserved, of being one of the more brilliant men of his generation, Christian or otherwise, we find that even his more peculiar ideas took on a lustre and maintained a staying power in certain circles, even in the face of developments of the understanding of theology in the universal Church which were opposed to Origen’s understanding. This was a problem, that certain circles, convinced of Origen’s genuine intelligence, thought his ideas were better than those that the Church held as correct. (It still happens today, far too often, though not with anyone of genuine brilliance and authentic faith like Origen’s–ours is a paltry age of the intellect when such faithless vapidities are listened to as have been.) Now, we can be sure that Origen would not have held such ideas in the face of ecumenical synodical decisions to the contrary; he would simply have rejoiced in the doctrine of the Church, as he always had. Yet, he died long before, and so lacked the benefit of, the Ecumenical Councils that would establish the formulation of doctrines to preserve the faith against heresy. And unfortunately, in one of them, the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II of 553, in chapter 11 of the surviving canons of the council, Origen is anathematized:

If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.
NPNF Second Series, volume 14, page 314

Two lists of anathemas are likewise attached to this council: a list of Fifteen Anathemas against Origen, and a list of Nine Anathemas against Origen written by the Emperor St Justinian himself. Unfortunately, because of the anathemas, Origen’s original writings have been almost completely destroyed (except for a collection of excerpts and several works in Latin translations of variable faithfulness), and so the consideration of these ideas (some of them very peculiar, indeed) as representative of Origen’s positions must be taken with a certain amount of faith. But I think here it is important to note those last phrases of the official act of anathematization: “all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.” All we know of Origen, and contrary to the other heretics listed with him, is that he would not have held “to the end the same opinion,” but in the light of the Church’s teaching he would certainly have changed his opinion to reflect that of the Church. There can be no doubt about this. His devotion to the Church, evident in the de Lubac citations above, would have allowed of nothing else. Unlike Arius and the others listed in the anathema, from what we know of Origen he would never have, despite his nickname, adamantly defended his speculative theology in the face of the teaching of the Church. So, one could say, even at this distance, that according to a strict reading of the anathema in which Origen is named, there is room to excuse him, for even though some of his ideas may certainly be worthy of anathema, he would not have held them when challenged by the Church in the body of an Ecumenical Council.

But there is something more important to keep in mind. There is always room for you to pray for another soul, too. Say a prayer for Origen sometime, for a loyal son of the Church. It’s just what he would ask of you, and just what he would do for you.

A lullaby

Bluebird, bluebird
craw, craw, craw
From my window you must fly.
Bluebird, bluebird
take my prayer
to the ear of God Most High.
Bluebird, bluebird
craw, craw, craw
Fly away, fly away,
fly away to God

Me, last night

Grain of Wheat

Mike Aquilina recently mentioned this new piece of historical fiction written by Michael E. Giesler, Grain of Wheat (Scepter Publishers, 2008).

The book is the third in a trilogy following the lives of several Christians in the mid to late second century city of Rome, from the end of Hadrian’s reign into that of Antoninus Pius. I will avoid any spoilers in this short review. This volume is set entirely in Antoninus Pius’ reign and relates especially the story of Marcus Metellus Cimber, son of a senator, and the results of his conversion on his family. There are several ancillary stories describing, I presume, the further adventures of some of the characters from the first two books in the series, which I haven’t read. Among these are Numer, a black Egyptian Christian who is a close friend of Marcus, and Dedicus, a Christian from Samaria,friend of both Marcus and his hometown friend Justin (not yet, of course, known as St Justin Martyr in the book), a teacher and writer who has just moved to Rome. There are Christian fish merchants, freed slaves, and Christian-sympathetic people of the senatorial class, including even the head of the Praetorian Guard.

The story itself is gripping. There is the accurate depiction of a palpable anxiety among the Christians, whose religion was illegal, and who were required to meet in private homes, which could potentially result in exposure by a jealous friend, or embittered slave or family member. Christians could be and were often accused in the courts; when offered to recant their religion and apostasize, they often chose martydom instead. These were facts of life through the first three centuries of Christian existence, particularly in centers of secular power, but especially in Rome. Yet, it is also not always the case that people known to be Christian were not simply rounded up and all done away with immediately, and the book shows this aspect accurately, too. Those Christians of greater wealth or ability, and particularly the clergy, were most in danger of being denounced by friends and even family. It was a cruel time. Yet one could live one’s life as a Christian without it ending in execution, which is often forgotten. The book also accurately depicts the fervent and very personal faith that we find record of in the catacombs, as well. People are praying to Christ constantly, even experiencing the charism of glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”). They refer every worry and care about friends and family to prayer, and are shown experiencing the joy of the Eucharist. The incidental details in the book show the author is very familiar with the period, and has done his research well. The setting is sufficiently authentic and yet without annoying extraneous detail that the picture given of Rome is lively and believable. This is a very enjoyable book. I hope the series will continue.

I think perhaps one of the best things I can say about this book is that I couldn’t put it down. It was a pleasant and a quick read (one late night). I would estimate its reading level to be young adult, so it should be fitting for any teenaged reader and upward. As Mike Aquilina mentions, two of his teenaged daughters loved it and have passed that love on to others. The contagious love of a book can spread like wildfire. This book is worthy of it.

That lonely cloud

There is a bright-dark cloud of knowing undone
and an only-dark cloud of ignorance.
How blusters the flesh to drive off the one
to envelop itself in the other.
Passions in one drop away like the rain
while in the other they thrive like thunder.
I know I ought, but can I choose easily
that terrifying bank all unseen
that would undo and remake me anew–
that fearsome and awesome engine of change?
Only in the hands of a loving God
Who has passed through the dark and light Himself
can I trust and let go and be overthrown
by His bright-dark cloud of knowing undone.

Me, just now.

O frabjous day!

There is now a blog collecting links to the work of the eminently readable modern essayist extraordinaire Dr Anthony Daniels, The Skeptical Doctor, whose nom de plume, or rather nom du clavier, is Theodore Dalrymple.

This site should make for a convenient entry point to the various publications in which his essays appear, at least as far as they’ll have his essays online.

Thomas Aquinas College

In a recent comment I made mention of a particularly striking curriculum that I’d seen from a small conservative Christian college, particularly in reference to a classical canon of works that are no longer fashionable. At the time I couldn’t recall the college, and couldn’t immediately find my copy of the curriculum. I have found both.

The college is Thomas Aquinas College in beautiful Santa Paula, California. Their motto? Verum. Bonum. Pulchrum. The True. The Good. The Beautiful. Read through the entire site. The college looks and sounds idyllic. Note especially this, from the About the College page:

Fundamental in the Catholic intellectual tradition is the conviction that learning means discovering and growing in the truth about reality. It is the truth that sets men free and nothing else. Since truth concerns both natural and supernatural matters, the College’s program has both natural and divine wisdom as its ultimate objectives.

There are no textbooks. The prescribed, four-year interdisciplinary course of studies is based on the original works of the best, most influential authors, poets, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians of Western civilization. In every classroom, the primary teachers are the authors of the “Great Books” from Aristotle, Homer and Euclid to St. Thomas Aquinas, T. S. Eliot and Albert Einstein.

There are no lectures. Teaching and learning demand a meeting of the minds. The course is, therefore, essentially a sustained conversation in tutorials, seminars, and laboratories guided by tutors who assist students in the work of reading, analyzing, and evaluating the great works which are central in the collected wisdom of Civilization. Classes are Socratic in method and do not exceed twenty students. Every student has daily practice in the arts of language, grammar, and rhetoric; in reading and critical analysis of texts; in mathematical demonstration; in laboratory investigation.

There are no majors, no minors, no electives, no specializations. The arts and sciences which comprise the curriculum are organized into a comprehensive whole. The College aims at providing its students with a thorough grounding in the arts of thinking and a broad and integrated vision of the whole of life and learning.

Such a doldrum-shattering, revolutionary approach is so succinctly summarized! The edu(c)rats should tremble at the dawning of such a star! What major university could even attempt to compare with the program of this little college? They are much too far gone down another road, as I see all around me every day. They’re nothing but overgrown high schools, these days.

And so, at long last, feast your eyes, widened in wonder, on their four year curriculum, a reading list of Great Books that will make these young ladies and young gentlemen the envy of all truly well-read people. It is simply stunning, to be honest. I am flummoxed, completely incapable of describing how great a list of books this is, or of emphasizing the benefit to be had of such a curriculum in such a company and within the bounds of such a tradition. I leave you, dear reader, to ponder the benefits yourself! This curriculum is, however incapable I am of singing its paeans, precisely an example of that recent revival of interest in the canons of yesteryear, the recognition of the value of classic works in various fields, whether foundational or exemplary. One learns best from the best.

The college is not only exemplary of an older tradition of education, but of specifically a traditional Roman Catholic one. By this I mean not just an older form of traditional education which happens to be Catholic, which education in most places long since been subsumed into public shooling’s mediocrity, but a more traditional expression of Catholicism and the concommittant education which is appropriate to that expression. There are a number of vocations from this school, of both priesthood and religious, and there’s a magnificently traditional chapel under construction, which will undoubtedly resound to the quiet splendor of a traditional Latin mass in the Extraordinary Form soon after its consecration. President Thomas Dillon and all the faculty, staff, students and families who have made Thomas Aquinas College what it is deserve our thanks for pointing out that there’s another way out of the mess that education is in. A way that some so dismissively call backwards has proven to be a vividly successful way forward. We can, it seems, rest assured that a book on Felt Banner Construction will not be making it onto the curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College

The true, the good, the beautiful indeed.

I heard, O King . . .

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.

Husain Haddawy has accomplished a deed which, “if it could be engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, would be a lesson to those who would consider.” His two volumes The Arabian Nights and The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Stories comprise translations of the core and several of the more well-known tales from the rest found in The Thousand and One Nights, perhaps most familiar in the complete English translation done by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous Victorian explorer, along with his occasionally peculiar ethnographic notes. Haddawy’s translations are a pleasure to read, much more so than Burton’s cramped pseudo-archaism and hyperventilating pseudo-Oriental style. They are crisp, clear, contemporary prose, yet with that slightly archaic bent that is appropriate for such tales of a long-gone world of caliphs, slave-girls, and eunuchs. The verse is not as successful, but then it’s difficult to tell to what degree this is to be blamed on Haddawy’s translation, as he does state in the informative introduction that the verse itself varies distinctly in quality.

These two volumes are included in the Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, and in the hardcover editions are of the standard high quality for this collection. These are quite nice thin-boarded hardcovers (which I for some reason think of as “French” in style), with sewn bindings and registers (ribbons), and quite thin but opaque paper, with probably a 9 or 9.5 point text, which is not too small for comfortable reading. The first volume includes the core of the collection, based on the critical edition of a fourteenth century Syrian manuscript established by the recently reposed Muhsin Mahdi, Alf Layla wa Layla (vols 1-2: Text and Commentary; vol 3: Introduction and Indexes; Brill, 1-2: 1984, 3: 1994). This volume includes “King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier’s Daughter,” “The Merchant and the Demon,” “The Fisherman and the Demon,” “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” “The Three Apples,” “The Two Viziers, Nur al-Din ‘Ali al-Misri and Badr al-Din Hasan al-Basri,” “The Hunchback,” “Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Bakkar and the Slave-girl Shams al-Nahar,” “The Slave-Girl Aniz al-Jalis and Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Khaqan,” and “Jullanar of the Sea.” The second volume includes “The Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” “The Story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Story of ‘Ala al-Din (Aladdin) and the Magic Lamp,” and “The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and His Two Sons.” The textual origins of the works included in the second volume are more complex. The Sindbad stories are taken from the Bulaq edition of 1835, based on a late, conflate Egyptian manuscript. The Qamar story is found in the Mahdi edition, the first pages of which are found in the fourteenth century Syrian manuscript, but the rest of which is culled from later manuscripts. The stories of ‘Ali Baba and ‘Ala al-Din are not found in any authentic Arabic source. These stories were told to Antoine Galland by Hanna Diab, a Maronite Christian from Aleppo, and were included in Galland’s French edition, Mille et Une Nuits (1704-1717). Later Arabic texts of these tales were shown to be based on Galland’s versions. Haddawy thus translated these two tales from Galland’s French.

One thing to be aware of is that these volumes will not make for good bedside reading for children, as some abridged versions of The Arabian Nights may do. The casual brutality and the lasciviousness, the racism and the slavery in the tales are all translated without euphemism, presenting us with an accurate picture of an entertainment from the Muslim world in the age of the Mamluks, a particularly brutal time. As nightmare fodder for young ones, they would excel.

There is a striking sensuous luxuriousness in the descriptions of foods, scents, clothing, architecture, gardens, and scenery, one which is difficult to exaggerate, and one which is, in a way, seductive; but in their very excess, they reveal themselves as the imaginary hyperbole of tale-telling. Though striking, I don’t think they’re particularly good for one, to focus on the pleasing of the senses. Which world does one live for, after all? And this point is sometimes (though not often enough, with more emphasis on worldly success and riches) made in the tales themselves. On that note, I have a weakness for jasmine, I must confess; having a fragrant sprig in a vase nearby while reading these tales is appropriate.

Yet another striking thing about the tales is the presence of the supernatural throughout. God is still striking down proud cities (turning the inhabitants to stone!), sorceresses enchant entire landscapes, demons are everywhere, and angels strike them down. The protagonists are generally pious, with the striking (and no doubt traditional) phrase “There is no power and no strength save in God, the Almighty, the Magnificent” often on their lips when distraught. This is a world in which there is no natural and supernatural, but all in one: those lines had not yet been drawn. Then, as now, spiritual darkness was recognized as ever-present and ready to attack the unwary.

For those seeking a diversion from the humdrummism of the ordinary days of cleaning, or committees, or paper-grading, or too much non-fiction reading, I recommend these two volumes of Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights. They are transporting.